The Collected Adventures of Asterix Review
Note: the bulk of this review features the same text for my review of the French Astérix: La Trilogie Gaumont set released last year. If you have already read that, you may wish to skip down to the individual film reviews or the DVD Presentation section.
The challenges facing any director approaching a property as rich as Asterix are daunting. The bandes dessinées (strip cartoons to laymen) are some of the most subversive, witty and genuinely engaging graphic novels ever made, and it irks me no end they are almost always consigned to the "children's" section of book shops (you wouldn't believe the odd looks I've received while perusing the shelves between Noddy and Teletubbies). The series, for those who have yet to encounter it, takes place at the time of the Roman conquest of Gaul (ancient France) and centres on the exploits of Asterix, a short and wily little man who lives in the only village that has yet to be defeated by the invaders. Asterix's tribe hold out against their more powerful aggressors thanks to a magic potion which gives them superhuman strength. Asterix, along with his best friend, the large and slightly slow-witted Obelix, travel the known (and sometimes unknown) world, the primary purpose being to laugh good-naturedly at the bizarre habits of various nationalities, but also to comment on contemporary social issues in an often bitingly accurate manner. The brainchild of writer René Goscinny and artist Albert Uderzo, the Asterix series has been phenomenally popular both in its native France and around the world, and has been translated into over 70 languages.
What makes the books work so well is the decidedly adult perspective from which they are written. While young children can enjoy the slapstick humour and beautifully-illustrated panels, adults can appreciate all that and then some more. While the earliest stories (and, later on, many of Uderzo's solo efforts) were for the most part straightforward adventure tales with little in the way of social commentary, at its peak the series was a bitingly potent satire of modern life. While the vast majority of the stories tend to conform to a fairly straightforward formula, usually involving the magic potion, the potion is in fact essentially the Asterix McGuffin. Frequently the focus of Asterix's missions, it is really nothing more than a tool to take our heroes to a far-off land ripe for satire, or to parody one of modern society's many vices. A level of nonchalance pervades in even the most action-packed books, as Asterix and Obelix approach seemingly insurmountable hurdles with a level of self-confidence (arrogance, even) that makes it entirely possible to believe that this rag-tag little village is capable of withstanding the combined might of the entire Roman army.
It is not surprising that the film adaptations have largely been culled from the series' earlier period - and probably just as well too, for I could never imagine the vicious satires of consumerism that were The Mansions of the Gods and Obelix and Co. (unless George A. Romero suddenly decided to try his hand at adapting them), or the dessimation of political campaigns that was Asterix and Caesar's Gift, working on screen. The closest the films ever got was in the Goscinny/Uderzo-directed The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, whose "Place That Sends You Mad" sequence was as accurate a portrayal of office life as I have ever seen (and much more amusing than The Office's infuriatingly smug brand of "comedy").
Of course, it could be argued that Asterix is entirely unsuited to adaptation for the screen. The books are so firmly rooted in verbal humour that to render them faithfully on-screen would result in "animated radio" (a phrase coined by the great Chuck Jones to describe animation that relies on writing rather than cartooning) of the worst possible kind. Certainly, the first film adaptation of an Asterix story, 1967's Asterix the Gaul, which was little more than a frame-by-frame fascimile of its source material, was an extremely lazy example of filmmaking that retained all of the book's content but sucked it dry of any resonance. Clearly the formula that worked so well on paper has to be modified for the screen, and it is interesting to watch how, through the course of seven animated and two live action efforts (with an eighth animated feature was released through most of mainland Europe earlier in 2006), various directors have applied different methods and styles, with varying degrees of success.
This box set includes the first six films, omitting both Asterix Conquers America, whose rights reside with 20th Century Fox, and the recent Asterix and the Vikings, which is yet to see a release in any English territory despite being animated to an English voice track.
Asterix the Gaul
(France/Belgium: director uncredited, 1967)
French title: Astérix le Gaulois
Desperate to discover the secret of the Gauls' incredible stength, Centurion Crismus Bonus dispatches a spy to the Gaulish village. When it is discovered that the solution lies in the magic potion brewed by the druid Getafix, the Roman abduct him. Facing the might of an entire Roman garrison and with not a drop of potion to spare, Asterix bravely enters the lion's den to rescue the druid.
The history of this first Asterix adaptation is a bizarre one. It was actually created, without Goscinny and Uderzo's knowledge, by a Belgian studio, Belvision, at the behest of publisher Georges Dargaud. Originally intended for television, the end result, which was given a theatrical release at the last moment, is of an extremely low technical standard, with rudimentary animation and greatly simplified artwork which makes some of the characters almost unrecognisable. Worse still, it is not so much an adaptation as a frame by frame remake of the original book. The attempt to faithfully transpose the humour from page to screen is an unmitigated disaster, with absolutely no sense of timing or rhythm, and makes the film a chore to watch. It's not surprising that Goscinny and Uderzo were extremely disappointed by the end result, going so far as to shut down production on a similar adaptation of the second book, Asterix and the Golden Sickle. 2/10
Asterix and Cleopatra
(France/Belgium: René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, 1968)
French title: Astérix et Cl´opatre
In Egypt, Queen Cleopatra strikes a bet with Julius Caesar that she can have a palace built for him within three months, in order to prove that her people are not decadent. Realising that he will be thrown to the crocodiles if he fails, the incompetent architect Edifis calls on his old friend from Gaul, the druid Getafix, to lend a hand. Asterix and Obelix, of course, tag along, but the group of Gauls soon find themselves up against Edifis' unscrupulous rival, Artifis, as well as the ultimate bad sportsman, Caesar himself.
Created a year after Asterix the Gaul by the same animation studio, Asterix and Cleopatra shares a number of the same problems as its predecessor, but at the same time benefits substantially from the creative involvement of Goscinny and Uderzo, as well as a more liberal attitude to the adaptation. The two creators were both huge admirers of Walt Disney, and, with its musical numbers and slapstick, this at times feels like a loving homage to the Mouse House. Still, the comparatively cheap-looking animation doesn't help, and the rather episodic nature of the book's plot (it, like all of the Asterix stories until Asterix in Corsica, was originally published in serialised form in the magazine Pilote, with every two pages essentially being comprised of their own mini-adventure) gives it a somewhat disjointed feel. Still, there's some fun to be had with it, even if it seems to aim more towards a child audience than an adult one. 5/10
The Twelve Tasks of Asterix
(France: René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, 1976)
French title: Les Douze Travaux d'Astérix
After yet another Roman garrison is defeated in its attempt to conquer the Gaulish village, some of the senators in Rome begin to suspect that the inhabitants are in fact gods. His reputation in tatters, Caesar sets the villagers a series of twelve tasks that only gods could accomplish, with the promise that, should they succeed, he will admit defeat. Should the Gauls fail in even a single task, however, they must surrender. Going for a combination of wits and strength, Asterix and Obelix are dispatched to face the challenge, guided by the ever-blasé Caius Tiddlus.
The Twelve Tasks of Asterix is one of only two films completed at Goscinny and Uderzo's own animation company, Studios Idéfix (Idéfix is the French name for Dogmatix), and also bears the honour of being the only Asterix film not based on an already existing book. A riff on the twelve tasks performed by Hercules, the film is something of a send-up of films based on Greek and Roman mythology, and actually manages to be extremely funny at times. It also manages to capture the tone of the books better than any other Asterix film, although the general lackadaisical tone proves to be its undoing: the stakes are simply never high enough, as Asterix and Obelix's complete nonchalance towards the increasingly ludicrous tasks to face, while a great source of comedy in its own right, means that we never really fear that their mission will fail. 6/10
Asterix vs. Caesar
(France: Paul & Gaëtan Brizzi, 1985)
French title: Astérix et la Surprise de César
When the lovely Panacea and her fiancé Tragicomix are kidnapped by the Romans, Asterix and the smitten Obelix follow them, joining the foreign legion in order to track them down. Their pursuit leads them from Gaul to Africa and then on to Rome, resulting in a thrilling climax in the arena of the Coliseum during Julius Caesar's birthday celebrations...
The first Asterix film since The Twelve Tasks of Asterix in 1976, this effort by Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi, who later went on to great success working at the Disney studio, is intriguing for a number of reasons, not least because it actually amalgamates the storylines of two separate books, Asterix the Gladiator and Asterix the Legionary. An interesting idea that was also used later on for Asterix and the Big Fight, it makes the plot slightly less predictable for fans of the books, but interferes with our suspension of disbelief by mangling the storylines and warping the series' chronology. By transposing and merging various characters and events, the film is clearly established as taking place within a different reality to that of the book, which at the end of the day does more harm than good.
Nevertheless, Asterix vs. Caesar is a reasonably enjoyable adventure story that initially struggles to find its feet but makes up for lost time as it progresses. The Brizzi brothers do a great job of balancing the emotion with the humour, especially in the final act, where they manage to work in a superb gag involving the descruction of half of the Coliseum. The joke of Asterix and Obelix damaging a famous monument has been repeated on many occasions throughout the series, most notably in Asterix and Cleopatra when Obelix managed to destroy the Sphinx's nose, but it works especially well here because of the animators' close attention to detail (the results of the carnage are an extremely accurate portrayal of what the building looks like today). 6/10
Asterix in Britain
(France: Pino Van Lamsweerde, 1986)
French title: Astérix chez les Bretons
Exploiting the inhabitants' refusal to fight on weekends and habit of stopping to drink hot water at 5 o'clock every afternoon, Julius Caesar invades and conquers Britain. Eventually, only one small village holds out, inhabited by Asterix's distant cousin Anticlimax. Anticlimax escapes to Gaul to look for help, and soon he, Asterix and Obelix are crossing the Mare Britannicum (the English Channel) armed with a barrel full of magic potion. The Romans, however, will stop at nothing to prevent the potion from reaching the beseiged village...
It is best to treat Asterix vs. Caesar and Asterix in Britain as a pair, as they were produced simultaneously by different directors but with largely the same team. In terms of tone, Asterix in Britain is decidedly closer to the books, and indeed in many ways is the best Asterix film of the lot, since this is probably the only one to come anywhere near to the style of humour of the texts. Like Asterix vs. Caesar, it was written by Pierre Tchernia, a close friend and collaborator of Goscinny and Uderzo. The film is peppered with astute observations of British (or rather English) stereotypes and visual gags that on occasions even outdo their counterparts in the book, my favourites being wooden 50 BC representations of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. The attempts to retain the feel of the books, however, proves to be this film's undoing, as sections really do drag, the plot gradually unwinding but without the controlled sense of pacing that was present in the source material. It could also do with more in terms of music; most of what is present is a mere recycling of Vladimir Cosma's score to Asterix vs. Caesar.
This film certainly works better in French than in English, with the French renditions of British dialogue proving to be absolutely hilarious and impossible to translate with anything more than a shadow of the original intent being maintained. (The humour plays heavily on the differences between French and English word order, something that simply doesn't work when everyone is speaking English.) In the books, translators Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge would, on occasions, virtually rewrite entire passages to replace non-translatable humour with a suitable equivalent, but on-screen, where the dialogue must fit into a pre-alloted length of time, this luxury is not afforded. 7/10
Asterix and the Big Fight
(France/Germany: Philippe Grimond, 1989)
French title: Le Coup du Menhir
While attempting to rescue the druid Getafix from the Romans, Obelix inadvertently manages to crush him with a menhir. When he comes round, the druid has lost most of his mental faculties, and the Gauls quickly realise that, without his magic potion, they are sitting ducks for the Romans. Into the mix comes a fraudulent Soothsayer, who sets out to exploit the villagers' superstitious beliefs...
Asterix and the Big Fight showed up four years after Asterix vs. Caesar and Asterix in Britain, and it is a very different product. Much more sombre in atmosphere, there is scarcely a single gag in the whole film, the humour instead coming from Getafix's mental illness. It doesn't work particularly well, with many of the attempts at slapstick coming across as clumsy at best and downright embarrassing at worst.
Furthermore, although the film's English-language title is Asterix and the Big Fight, the script is actually a rather uncomfortable mélange of two books, Asterix and the Big Fight and Asterix and the Soothsayer, the latter of which contributes by far the most material. In fact, this issue provoked ire amongst English-speaking fans when the film was released, because the adaptation effectively removes any trace of the Big Fight of the title. In other territories, the fact that it didn't share the name of the book led to considerably less confusion. Still, though, the overall combination never quite gels, and unfortunately the middle of the film is comprised with around 30 minutes of dead time, which worked quite well in the original books given that it left ample time for some very amusing gags (in the case of Big Fight) and sharp social satire (in Soothsayer), but is absolutely disastrous in the comparatively straitlaced film.
What saves Big Fight is its wonderful visuals. The animation is by far the best of the entire line-up of Asterix films, and the backgrounds have an almost life-like level of detail, courtesy of background art director Michel Guérin's fantastic attention to detail and lighting. The score, by the late Michel Colombier, is also an interesting piece of work, combining Stravinskyan strings with a theme tune reminiscent of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. This is overall a much more consciously cinematic film than any of the other entries in the series, and although the end result is not particularly inspiring, the technical proficiency is commendable. Interestingly, although the blandest of the three by far, it was a massive success in France, its box office sales beating those of Return of the Jedi. 5/10
Asterix's life on home video, especially in the UK, has always been an unsatisfying one. Marred by poor presentations, just about every release, on VHS or DVD, has been unceremoniously cropped from its original aspect ratio and, more often than not, dubbed. Last year, the French Astérix: La Trilogie Gaumont presented the three films produced by the Gaumont studio in their original aspect ratios and their proper French language, but unfortunately without the aid of English subtitles. Therefore, the news that Optimum, long a champion of foreign films, was planning on releasing the first six films in the UK was, understandably, a cause for celebration. It's a shame, therefore, that Optimum would appear to have invested the absolute minimum effort for this box set.
Without exception, every film is presented poorly - the only question is just how poorly. All of the films are dubbed into English, the results of which range from barely acceptable to skin-crawling. Frankly, I'm absolutely gobsmacked by the failure to provided the original French audio tracks - if this were a live action release, I suspect that people would be up in arms. No subtitles are provided either.
Because of the highly variable nature of the image quality, I have decided to deal with the transfer for each film separately.
Asterix the Gaul - As this film was originally intended for television, its correct aspect ratio, which has been maintained for every previous release, is 1.33:1. Optimum, however, have decided to reformat the image to 1.78:1, cropping off the top and bottom of the image. Whether or not this represents how the image would have been projected theatrically is a moot point: frankly, it looks absolutely awful and leads to an extremely unsatisfying presentation. As if this wasn't bad enough, it has been subjected to some extremely intrusive DVNR (digital video noise reduction), eroding the outlines and resulting in smearing. 0/10
Asterix and Cleopatra - There is some controversy as to how this title is supposed to be presented. One would assume that, as a French film from the late 1960s intended for a theatrical release, its proper ratio would be somewhere in the region of 1.66:1. And yet, every single home video release (including the French VHS and DVD editions, which have presented every other title in its intended ratio) gives Asterix and Cleopatra a 1.33:1 transfer. In the absence of any information to the contrary, I am going to assume that this ratio is correct. In any event, it's clear that the version presented on Optimum's DVD is decidedly not how it is supposed to look. Taken from a 1.33:1 master and zoomboxed to 1.78:1, it looks cramped in the extreme and, during the opening sequence, which features a character speaking in hieroglyphics, the camera has to track vertically in an attempt to capture both the character and his speech bubbles. The transfer also exhibits severe noise reduction artefacts and intermittently choppy movement, particularly noticeable in panning shots. 0/10
The Twelve Tasks to Asterix - This transfer looks somewhat similar to the transfers for the previous two titles, although this time, the cropping, which reframes the image to 1.78:1 from its original 1.66:1, is considerably less intrusive. The image does look slightly cramped at times, but it is by no means unwatchable, and the DVNR artefacts, while still present, are nothing like as bad as in the previous two films. However, some strange anomalies are present in the form of a number of interlaced frames, despite the fact that the bulk of the transfer is progressive, while the image looks a little too dark, with overly yellow cast to the colours. 5/10
Asterix vs. Caesar and Asterix in Britain - These transfers have been sourced from the French DVD releases, and as a result are by far the most faithful representations of their respective films. As I mentioned in my review for the French releases, they have been subjected to an extremely intrusive DVNR process, which results in very noticeable artefacts. Considering how bad the other films look, though, it is perhaps a blessing that DVNR is the biggest problem with these two titles. 6/10
Asterix and the Big Fight - The biggest anomaly of the set, this film is presented in a cropped 1.33:1 format, unceremoniously mangling the intended 1.85:1 presentation. Why this disc is 4x3 when all the others were in a 16x9 format (in some cases wrongly) is anyone's guess, but in any event, the source for this title is the same master that was used for the poor quality Australian release from Video Unlimited. 0/10
Finally, it should be pointed out that all six films are presented on single layer discs, often with less than 3 GB of the available 4.3 GB used. As a result, every single film suffers from noticeable compression problems, including the two titles taken directly from the French DVDs.
There are no extras at all.
So, for the £29.99 asking price, what do you get? Six rather fetching coasters is the answer. Optimum have really dropped the ball with this release, which is a hodge-podge of different sources, only around half of which come even close to being watchable. By putting this release out and charging a premium price for it, they are showing utter contempt for their customers. Their thinking, I would assume, is that children will be happy enough with them, but quite honestly, when these shoddy presentations (or ones similar to them) were served up to me when I was a child, I was far from satisfied. In any event, I'd hazzard a guess that most Asterix fans these days are adults who, rightfully so, have come to expect better from Optimum.
To make matters worse, at the end of last year, when we first became aware of the DVNR artefacts present on the French DVDs, DVD Times reviewer David Mackenzie contacted Optimum, warning them of the problem, in case the French releases ended up being used as a source. Not only was his email not replied to, his advice has clearly been ignored point-blank, and, to add insult to injury, ironically-named Optimum have committed far greater crimes against these films than the French distributors ever did. As such, I cannot possibly recommend this release in any way. To put things into perspective, I've seen VHS releases that are more watchable than these.
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Last updated: 15/07/2018 14:43:08