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PARIS – What’s black and white and yellow all over? The answer, to those unfamiliar with one of Belgian comic book artist Andre Franquin’s most beloved creations, is the Marsupilami – a feisty, furry-tailed creature of the jungle, and the subject of writer-director-star Alain Chabat’s latest romp, HOUBA! On the Trail of the Marsupilami (Sur la piste du Marsupilami). Combining a CGI-fueled kid’s flick with a broader, at times adult-oriented comedy, the €40 million ($52 million) co-prod opened huge in Gaul, raking in over 1 million admissions in only five days. Outside Euro markets, this amusingly uneven blockbuster will probably cause less of a roar than a yelp.
Originally featured as a side character in Franquin’s Spirou et Fantasio comic strips of the 1950s, the Marsupilami eventually earned his own spin-off in the late 80s, followed by two animated series, one which continues to run through this day. (Attempts to pierce the English-language market were aborted in the 90s, although certain comics have been translated for distribution in India.) And while the physically adept but verbally impaired (“Houba!” being his sole expression) animal does not quite hold a candle to Tintin or Franquin’s own Gaston in terms of popularity, he’s definitely big enough with the under-8 set to warrant such a huge production.
Certainly, Chabat, who directed 2002’s Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra – which remains one of the most successful French movies of all time – was the right candidate for such a job, and he has a particular knack for combining fresh visual gags with witty one-liners and other asides clearly aimed at older audiences. Indeed, while the film is rated locally for viewers over the age of 6, certain jokes, including a Farrelly Bros.-style sequence involving a Chihuahua and one of the main character’s ears, would hardly pass muster as family-friendly comedy – at least outside France.
Written by Chabat and Jeremy Doner (whose credits include the French comedy Hearbreakerand the U.S. series Damages and The Killing), Marsupilami follows the travails of a waning TV reporter, Dan Geraldo (Chabat), sent on a mission to the imaginary South American nation of Palombia, where he’s supposed to provide thrilling footage of the mysterious Paya tribe. Instead, he teams up with a zany veterinarian (Jamel Debbouze) on a hunt for the furtive titular creature, who wreaks havoc on a local dictator (Lambert Wilson) and mad botanist (Fred Testot), both of whom are after the animal’s prized orchids, which harness youth-giving powers.
So goes the plot, which is really more of a pretext for Chabat and company to toss off a maximum amount of jokes, very much in the manner of the director’s SNL-style sketch comedy series from the 90s, Les Nuls. The 30-something crowd familiar with that show will surely appreciate the cheesy Hi-8 reportages or fake Loreal commercials scattered throughout, while certain overwrought bits – mainly the Lambert Wilson character’s obsession with Celine Deon – more than extend their welcome.
Otherwise, and beyond a few craftily handled action sequences (rendered in colorful CGI by French f/x house BUF), there’s too much clutter and too little character to make the film an altogether enjoyable experience, and the lengthy finale is especially headachy. In typical Chabat fashion, an end credits-roll has the cast doing lots of fun and dumb things, which in the least reveal how much everyone involved seemed to enjoy themselves, lending a dose of good vibes to the whole Cha-bang.
Crisp widescreen cinematography by Laurent Daillard (The Concert) captures the vibrant Mexican locations with plenty of verve, while the playful score by Bruno Coulais (Coraline) never overdoes it.
Opens: In France (April 4)
Production companies: Chez Wam, Pathe, TF1 Films Production, Scope Pictures
Cast: Jamel Debbouze, Alain Chabat, Fred Testot, Lambert Wilson, Geraldine Nakache, Liya Kebede
Director: Alain Chabat
Screenwriters: Alain Chabat, Jeremy Doner, based on the original comic books by Andre Franquin
Producers: Alain Chabat, Christine Rouxel
Executive producers: Alain Monne, Marion de Blay
Director of Photography: Laurent Dailland
Production designer: Olivier RaouxMusic: Bruno Coulais
Costume designer: Olivier Beriot
Editor: Maryline Monthieux
Digital special effects: BUF
International sales: Pathe International
No rating, 104 minutes
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