'Asterix: The Land of the Gods' ('Asterix: Le domaine des dieux'): Film Review

Asterix: The Land of Gods Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Universum Film

Asterix: The Land of Gods Still - H 2014

A floundering French franchise is given a welcome animated reboot

The first-ever 3D animated adapation of France's favorite comic book series

After two middling live-action adaptations that featured, among other things, a shirtless Gerard Depardieu sporting pigtails and elephant-size striped pants, the most beloved of French comic book franchises is given a welcome animated reboot in Asterix: The Land of the Gods (Asterix: Le domaine des dieux).

Co-directed by Alexandre Astier (creator of the TV show Kaamelott) and Louis Clichy (who worked on Wall-E and Up), this refreshing and witty kids flick channels the visual energy of the popular 1971 comic by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, while also hammering home its central theme: Gaul above all. With a wide release in both 3D and 2D set for late November, distributor SND should see plenty of loot through the Christmas holidays. The film’s smooth animation style and winning humor could also help push it beyond Francophone borders, especially on the small screen.

While Gods only hits French theaters next week, it has already been prereleased at the majestic Le Grand Rex cinema in Paris, where it plays five daily shows preceded by a 15-minute-long, pyrotechnical laser-aqua spectacle entitled “Water Fairyland.” Something like the Bellagio Fountains cut down to fit on a stage, with water jets synchronized to the music of Johann Strauss and Nicki Minaj, it’s as kitschy as it comes, though certainly a treat for children. (Posters in the Paris Metro boast of 100,000 plus early ticket reservations, which equals over $1 million in prerelease gross receipts.)

Luckily, the movie that follows is far less tacky, especially compared to a 2012 feature that underperformed at the box office and sparked an industry-wide controversy when producer-distributor Vincent Maraval publicly derided the bloated salaries of its castmembers (including Depardieu and comic Dany Boon).

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Sticking close enough to the original material while updating it for modern sensibilities, the filmmakers here manage to maintain a brisk pace (the movie clocks in at 85 minutes) that never tires out the viewer, even if Gods sometimes suffers from the nonstop action and thunderous sound effects privileged by many a modern cartoon.

But the storytelling is fluid and often quite funny, taking us back to 50 B.C., where Gallic warrior Asterix (voiced by Roger Carel) and his oversized cohort Obelix (Guillaume Briat) are forced to defend their Breton village from the latest Roman invasion, which takes the form of every country dweller’s worst nightmare: new condominiums.

Indeed, both the original comic and the new movie play out as clever social satires, underscoring local fears about the picturesque French landscape being overrun by speculative real estate development and invasive foreigners encroaching on their territory.

As the colossal marble buildings rise up around Asterix’s humble town, his fellow villagers, in desperation, decide to embrace the new economy by catering to the tourist crowd, selling antiques and freshly caught fish for five times the usual price. It’s pretty much what has happened, and is still happening, in many parts of rural France, and the film reveals how the Gauls are really given no choice in the matter — that is until Asterix drinks his magic potion and begins whipping major Roman butt.

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A subplot involving a team of African slaves forced to construct the condos also raises some interesting questions: When Asterix convinces them to rise up in rebellion, they decide instead to keep working in exchange for salaries and the hope of citizenship, underestimating the crudeness of their masters. While such tricky sequences may not always please the politically correct crowd, they are definitely more thought-provoking than those found in your average feature-length cartoon.

Astier and Clichy manage to make the material at once enjoyable and meaningful, while also providing a series of slick, streamlined visuals that never overstuff the screen, with animation director Patrick Delage  who worked on the 1989 toon Asterix and the Big Fight — doing justice to the original drawings of Uderzo (who illustrated 34 Asterix comics and wrote eight of them). Backed by a lively score from Francois Ozon regular Philippe Rombi, the tech package is impressive and certainly justifies an alleged €30 million ($38 million) budget. This time around, it’s French money well spent.

Production companies: M6 Studio, Belvision/Grid Animation, M6 Films, SNC
Cast: Roger Carel, Guillaume Briat, Lorant Deutsch, Laurent Lafitte, Alexandre Astier, Alain Chabat, Elie Semoun, Geraldine Nakache
Directors: Louis Clichy, Alexandre Astier
Screenwriter: Alexandre Astier, with participation by Jean-Remi Francois and Philip Lazebnik, based on the comic book by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo
Producers: Philippe Bony, Thomas Valentin
Executive producer: Natalie Altmann
Animation director: Patrick Delage
Artistic director: Thierry Fournier
Editor: Soline Guyonneau
Composer: Philippe Rombi
Sales: SND

No MPAA rating, 85 minutes