'Asterix 3' is ready to compete

With prod'n costs of Olympic proportions, it better be

Six months before the Beijing Olympic Games get under way, Europe is about to catch a slightly different Olympic fever. "Asterix and the Olympic Games" hits screens across the continent next week in what is thought to be the biggest print combination ever for a European release, totaling an Olympian 6,000 prints.

On its home turf, the French comic strip adaptation will have close to 1,000 prints in circulation as of Jan. 30. Russia will have about 900, with more than 500 prints in the German circuit and nearly as many in both Spain and Italy.

Mimicking the Olympic motto of "faster, higher, stronger," the third installment in the "Asterix" franchise has racked up superlatives since its inception. With a production budget of €78 million ($113 million), it is the most expensive French movie ever made. The six-month shoot in Spain's new Ciudad de la Luz studio complex was followed by lengthy postproduction to complete no fewer than 1,300 shots with SFX.

The movie is produced by Pathe and La Petite Reine, production banner of Claude Berri's son Thomas Langmann, who also co-wrote and co-directed. Germany and Spain co-produced through Constantin and TriPictures, respectively.

"Asterix and the Olympic Games" is adapted from the celebrated comic strips written by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo about a band of uppity Gauls who refuse to bend to the Roman invaders, and whose resistance is helped by a strength-giving magic potion. In this outing, they travel to Olympia to compete in the Games and win the hand of a Greek princess.

"The film was conceived from the start as a European one, with European stars," says Langmann, who admits the vast undertaking is "a bit of a crazy gamble."

Clovis Cornillac takes over the title role, replacing Christian Clavier, who starred in the first two big-screen adaptations, while Gerard Depardieu dons the fat-suit again to reprise the role of sidekick Obelix. Alain Delon, Benoit Poelvoorde, Jamel Debbouze and a host of Gallic stars join the fray.

The producers have gone to great lengths to assure wide appeal in the core countries where Asterix is popular, enlisting Spain's Santiago Segura (writer/director/star of the "Torrente" series), hugely popular German comedy actor-director Michael "Bully" Herbig and Italian comics Paolo Kessisoglu and Luca Bizzarri.

Guest star appearances include soccer legend Zinedine Zidane, ex-Formula One champ Michael Schumacher, tennis ace Amelie Mauresmo and basketball wizard Tony Parker. Wrestling colossus Nathan Jones adds a bit of menace.

The movie is pitched more squarely at kids than its predecessors, which had as many puns for the grown-ups as it did slapstick for the youngsters. (Test screenings for this movie were only done for kids, with no adult audiences tested.)

"It's really a kids film. It hasn't succeeded in blending humor that both kids and adults can appreciate in the way a film like 'Shrek' did," said one French director who was at the Jan. 13 premiere in Paris.

With so much at stake, Pathe has embarked on an unprecedented marketing campaign for a Gallic film, spending about €4 million ($5.8 million) in France on a blaze of publicity that includes 15,000 billboards countrywide.

Langmann says the idea is to release the film in a U.S.-style wave of marketing, cross-promotion and licensed spinoffs. "McDonald's across the whole of Europe is involved, as are Nestle and Volkswagen. There are three books linked to the film, a comic strip, toys, video games — it represents a lot of money," he says.

The two previous live-action adaptations, both produced by Pathe, were huge hits. "Asterix and Obelix versus Caesar," directed by Claude Zidi, drew 8.9 million admissions in France in 1999, and Alain Chabat's follow-up "Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra" sold almost 14.3 million tickets in 2002.

The third "Asterix" arrives after a year in which several ambitious French movies flopped badly. But Langmann seems confident that his movie won't suffer the same fate.

"Our goal in France is 10 million admissions. But we have €55 million ($80 million) in international sales. Pathe paid a €20 million ($29 million) minimum guarantee for France. The film is very well financed," he says.

The film has also sold to China, with details being finalized for a release ahead of the Beijing Games.

But just as Asterix and his Gallic cohorts held out against the Romans, Langmann admits that Anglo-Saxon markets remain stubbornly resistant to the comic strip and its movie adaptations.