Synopsis: In the year 50 BC, only one village in Gaul has managed to resist the might of
the Roman Empire, due to the superhuman strength of Asterix and Obelix.
Desperate to get their hands on the magic potion which supplies the duo with
their powers, the Romans first send a spy to the village, then kidnap Getafix
the druid, hoping that he can provide them with their own supply.
eyelights: the silly humour. the story. the wonderfully kooky characters.
eyesores: the cheap animation. the adaptation.
I really don’t know what came over me, but I spontaneously decided to revisit all of the Astérix movies. This was completely unplanned and most certainly not on the agenda. But I’m very happy to do this: the Astérix series of animated movies are classics and many memories are attached to the lot of them. Or, at least the earlier ones.
‘Astérix le Gaulois’ is a 1967 film based on the Goscinny and Uderzo comic book of the same name, which was first published in 1961 and which soon became a worldwide sensation. The film was produced, for some reason, without the authors’ approval (it would be the last such production made without them). It is a decent enough distillation of the original book, but it is weak in some areas.
On the positive side, it keeps all the crucial elements of the original intact: the story, the humour, and the characters.
The story: In ‘Astérix le Gaulois’, we are introduced to this village of Gauls for the first time. A proper back history opens the film (as it did in the book), and we visit with the one Gaul village still resisting the Roman occupation (I’m not sure if this story was influenced by the French’s WWII history in any way, but it’s interesting to note that the resisters are the heroes here). The villagers are almost all low-brow ruffians, but there is Astérix who is sharper than most and Panoramix who is the sage wizard. They are usually accompanied by Astérix’ best friend, Obélix, a dimwit who has superhuman force.
The reason for his uncanny strength is that he fell into a vat of secret potion that Panoramix made to provide temporary strength to the villagers. With this potion, they are able to fight off dozens of romans each. The Romans, meanwhile, are curious to know why they are getting whipped every time they encounter these particular Gauls (but not the rest!), so they send someone to infiltrate the village. And that’s when our story starts taking shape, as the Gauls and Romans come head to head in a battle of wits to defeat the other.
The humour: René Goscinny was a master wordsmith. He alone made Astérix the enjoyable creation that it is (as evidenced by the dramatic reduction of quality in the books after his passing). He created all sorts of plays on words to name characters and places, he used and twisted common expressions and clichés to amuse his readers, he studied cultures and portrayed his version of them as Astérix visited the globe, adapting their language to embellish these worlds. But he also had quite the playful, mischievous side to him and it made the book a gas to read.
The filmmakers of the big screen version of ‘Astérix le Gaulois’ seem to have attempted to keep the original book as intact as possible, even though it was clearly made with the kiddes in mind. The text, for one, is pilfered pretty much directly from the books – and thank goodness for that. What doesn’t work is the voice work by the various actors on hand: their delivery, as anyone who knows dubbing even remotely could attest to, was a make or break thing. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work. Thus, Goscinny’s carefully worded “blueprint” lost much of its flavour in translation.
The characters: Goscinny put together a perfect trio of characters: Astérix, the small but wily one; Obélix, the daft but brutish one; Panoramix, the older, all-knowing mentor. The three together make a terrific team, and would end up being the central figures of the series. Goscinny also created a bunch of iconic villagers, such as Abraracourcix, the village’s leader, Âgecanonix, the village elder, Assurancetourix, the talentless bard, Cétautomatix, the metalsmith, and Ordralfabétix, the fish salesman. They all add colour to the series.
These characters almost all show up as they are in the book (or not at all – as some actually appeared for the first time in later books). Their look varies slightly, due to the animators’ designs and the limited palette available to them. But, for the most part, they show up in faithful reproductions of the book’s originals.
What is lost in the adaptation process, unfortunately, is the quality of the work, in that Uderzo was a much better artist than the lot of the animators were. While the first book isn’t an artistic masterpiece, it is still quite good (especially given the era it was made in) – and he would improve massively in quite a short time. Uderzo was/is by any standard, an exceptional comic book artist. Without him, Astérix no doubt wouldn`t have been nearly as successful as he became.
Aside from the look of the film, the animation is of television calibre. In fact, the film was originally intended to be a tv movie, but was released theatrically instead (it has played incessantly on television since). However, even though it was deemed good enough for cinemas, it is far from matching the quality of Disney’s animation even some 20 years prior: the background works is decent but sloppy, the animated cels stand out dramatically over the background, the movement isn’t always fluid or natural, and there is some repetition in the work (obviously due to time and/or budget constraints).
Still, despite these issues, ‘Astérix le Gaulois’ is a decent opening salvo in what would soon become an incredibly popular series of animated movies – one that would spawn (thus far) 8 films, most of which are successful on all levels. It could have been done slightly better, but I’m sure that this was only due to the fact that Goscinny and Uderzo didn’t have a say in the matter. The next movie, which was also supposed to be produced without them, was halted mid-production and never completed Then they took over for the release of ‘Astérix et Cléopatre’, the first masterpiece of the series.
Date of viewing: February 3, 2013