Retro Film Review: Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar (Astérix et Obélix contre César, 1999)

in aaa •  last month 


Comic book superheroes are today viewed, rightly or wrongly, as a strictly American cultural phenomenon. However, even the old Europe produced Dynamic Duo of its own. In 1959 French comic book artists Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo created Asterix and Obelix – characters that would soon become immensely popular all over the world. Less than ten years later, Asterix and Obelix became protagonists of animated films. Regular live action film adaptation had to wait much longer. Four decades later, in 1999, French director Claude Zidi made Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar.

The plot begins in 1st Century BC, shortly after Julius Caesar (played by Gottfried John) has forced all Gallic tribes to accept Roman rule. Only one tiny village, where Asterix (played by Christian Clavier) and his giant friend Obelix (played by Gerard Depardieu) live, refuses to pay taxes to Roman invaders. Villagers can afford such arrogance because of a magic potion produced by Miraculix (played by Claude Pieplu) that gives them superhuman strength. The effects of that potion were experienced many times by unfortunate Caius Bonus (played by Jean-Pierre Castaldi), commander of local Roman garrison. Miraculix insists that the potion be used for defence only, but greedy Prolix (played by Daniel Prevost) convinces village chief Majestix (played by Michael Galabru) to dream about liberating Gaul and marching on Rome. In the meantime, garrison is inspected by Caesar himself. Lucius Detritus (played by Roberto Benigni), one of Caesar's assistants, learns about magic potion and steals its formula. When Miraculix gets captured, Asterix and Obelix must use all their ingenuity to liberate him and thus secure peaceful life for their village.

Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar is one of those films that couldn't be made without CGI technology. Computer tricks allowed film-makers to reconstruct ancient worlds without thousands of extras and expensive sets. Even with the plot being set in somewhat more prosaic rural Gaul, this film looks spectacular. Even more impressive are the scenes in which Asterix and Obelix make a short work of Roman legions - they are entertaining, spectacular and, at the same time, true to the humorous spirit of the original comic book. Claude Zidi, director known for his love of slapstick comedy, puts all that technological resources to good use.

Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar had less fortune with its cast. Christian Clavier was perhaps the best known French film comedian of late 1990s, but he was hardly suitable for the role of Asterix. He often turns out to be neurotic and far from cool and confident protagonist of the original comic book. Benigni is, on the other hand, too warm-hearted for the role of neurotic villain. Laetitia Casta, French supermodel and cultural icon, proves that she can't act in her role of Falbala. Thankfully, Depardieu is much more convincing as Asterix's giant sidekick while Gottfried John is equally convincing as one of best known historical characters.

All those who expect serious historical epic are going to be disappointed with this film. Many of original comic book fans are going to be infuriated with the usual butchering of the source material. But those expecting light entertainment are going to be pleased with Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar. This film shows that European cinema industry can match Hollywood in producing screen versions of comic book heroes.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on August 23rd 2004)

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