(Fifth, sixth or seventh viewing, On Cable TV, December 2019) I must have seen Les 12 travaux d’Astérix half a dozen times before I was twenty, so it was odd to revisit it a quarter of a century later, going through some eerily familiar beats and jokes. A holiday classic in French Canada, this adaptation of the Astérix and Obélix comic book series may be rough around the edges and unfortunately far too racist/sexist for its own good, but it does nail the tone of the characters and still packs plenty of laughs along the way. It also features one of my favourite sequences in animation in “La Maison qui rend fou,” a madcap take on bureaucracy gone wild. I’m not sure how well it would play with audiences unfamiliar with it (the animation is rather crude at times) and I certainly would not recommend watching it in anything other than the original French—but I did laugh a few times, and even the episodic structure of the twelve tasks works in the film’s favour as it becomes an excuse to try different kinds of comedy and animation styles. There is a strong self-awareness to the humour, as the characters constantly work their way out of impossible situations by cutting the Gordian knot and forcing their way out of trouble through sheer obstinacy. In other words, it still feels rather fresh and unpredictable even more than forty-five years later, and plays to adult audiences (re: the Naughty Island sequence) as much as the kids. In other words, there’s a reason why Les 12 travaux d’Astérix still faithfully plays on French-Canadian channels, more than once, every holiday period.
(On TV, November 2019) The history of big-screen adaptations of the Belgian comic book series Astérix et Obélix is long and inconsistent, going from all-time classics (the first few animated films) to regrettable failures (the live-action Olympic Games one). Fortunately, Astérix et Obélix: Au Service de sa majesté seems to have learned a few lessons from the Olympic-sized debacle of its predecessor, and delivers a rather good take on the mythos, helped along with writer-director Laurent Tirard’s confident execution and state-of-the-art special effects. Adapted from the classic albums Astérix chez les Bretons and Astérix et les Normands, it features the irreducible Gauls heading across the Channel to help the Britons defend themselves against the invading Romans. If you’ve read the albums, much of the film is a greatest hits of their best jokes, from the wonderfully observant translation jokes to the pirates getting demolished once again and a jolly rendition of the invention of tea. Anchored by Édouard Baer and Gérard Depardieu (with plenty of French celebrity cameos), the main duo is back at the forefront and everything is right again. Astérix et Obélix: Au Service de sa majesté is hardly a perfect film—the cartoonish humour register is well done, but may grate—but it’s a great deal better than its predecessor, and an honourable entry in a storied tradition.
(On TV, November 2019) There were four live-action movies based on the Asterix comic books between 1999 and 2012, and there’s a fair case to be made that Astérix aux jeux olympiques is the worst of them. Sure, the first film had some issues in terms of how to integrate comic book exaggeration in a live-action setting. But the script was generally serviceable, and that’s more than we can say about this third instalment. The most fundamental of its mistakes is to make an Astérix and Obélix story in which both main characters are supporting players in another plot having to do with fairly minor characters. The detour to Greece for the titular Olympic Games is (in keeping with the original comic book) an excuse to parody the modern Games, but they keep adding more subplots that have little to do with the putative heroes of the film. Much of the film is spent wondering when we’ll ditch the useless characters and go back to the lead duo. The chariot race that composes much of the third act does bring some much-needed energy back into the film, although that’s not a constant—whenever you puzzle over some lame joke, scene or one-off character interrupting the flow of the action, head over to the film’s Wikipedia page and you will realize that you’ve just seen a celebrity cameo from someone you’ve never heard of as a future viewer hailing from a future distant enough from 2008, which is already starting to happen in 2019. But Astérix aux jeux olympiques keeps the worst for last, as rather than wrap things up neatly with a quick banquet scene, it drags on for another 5–10 minutes for the sole purpose of bringing back an annoying character from the previous film (played by infamous showboater Jamel Debbouze) as well as other celebrity cameos. Enough. By that time, we just want it to be over. The special effects are better than the previous film, but not used judiciously or even tastefully. The direction isn’t particularly strong, and while it’s fun to see French-Canadian Stéphane Rousseau in a leading role, the amount of screen time he gets is an issue when the main characters of the series are sidelined. At least Clovis Cornillac and Gérard Depardieu are not bad as Astérix and Obelix, with no less than Alain Delon as Julius Caesar. Still, there’s not enough to offset the tremendous waste that is the misguided script and the overindulgent execution.
(On TV, October 2019) Adapting a comic book to the big screen is a tricky exercise, even more so when it’s working from an exuberant source such as the Astérix and Obélix series. As someone who grew up on the series, the idea of attempting to adapt the comic violence, over-the-top gags and fantastic visuals of the comic seems hopeless. Astérix & Obélix contre César, as the first live-action adaptation of the series, clearly underscores how difficult it is. On the positive side, the film does manage to present an authentic Astérix adventure, complete with the wild cast of characters in the protagonist’s village. The state of computer-generated imagery circa 1999 is just barely enough to give an idea of what’s possible, while looking unfortunately dated twenty years later. A still-young Gerard Depardieu is featured as Obélix, along with Christian Clavier as Asterix. Roberto Benigni, then at the height of his international fame, showboats annoyingly in a villain role. The film works, but barely: other than the weirdness in trying to fit a fluid comic style in live-action, the film also frequently loses itself in useless subplots, and becomes actively irritating when it repeatedly tries to pairs up (despite objections from other characters) the fifty-something Depardieu with a much-younger love interest. Writer-director Claude Zidi doesn’t embarrass himself (the bar being low enough), but the approach here is rougher than in other later classic comics adaptations along the lines of Lucky Luke, Le Marsupilami or Gaston Lagaffe. (None of them were all that successful, but more so than here.) Considering what was available in 1999, it’s an honest half-success.