Asterix and the Vikings Review

The Film

As I've already mentioned in previous reviews, converting the graphic novel adventures of Asterix the Gaul from page to screen seems to be an extremely difficult task. That's not to say that the adaptations have all been terrible, but it does seem that the comics are reliant on two things - René Goscinny's deadpan wit and Albert Uderzo's precise illustrations - neither of which can be transferred to film without something being lost along the way. The seven previous animated adaptations (I'm ignoring the two incorrigible live action attempts here) have demonstrated various techniques, ranging from straight panel by panel facsimiles (as with Asterix the Gaul and Asterix and Cleopatra) to loose retellings (Asterix Conquers America) to, on one solitary occasion, creating a completely new story (The Twelve Tasks of Asterix).

The eighth Asterix film, Asterix and the Vikings, follows a 12-year gap with no new animated features starring the indomitable Gaul being created. The source is Asterix and the Normans, a 1967 album from a period at which the series was going from strength to strength and could do virtually no wrong. The plot, appropriately enough, centres around an invasion of Gaul by the ferocious Normans (or Norsemen), who don't know the meaning of fear and believe that, if they can learn it, they will be able to fly (since, naturally, fear gives you wings). Their invasion coincides with the arrival of Chief Vitalstatistix's nephew, Justforkix, a snotty youth who would rather spend his days partying and listening to modern music than doing proper Gaulish activities like hunting for wild boar and fighting the Romans. Deciding that Justforkix is the Champion of Fear, the Norman chief, Timandahaf, has him captured, with the intention of dropping him off a cliff so they can watch him fly, and, predictably, it's up to Asterix and Obelix to save the day.

In the film version, the Normans have become the Vikings (presumably because viewers more familiar with 1066 as a historical period were confused by the fact that a people generally regarded as French in origin were invading France). The basics of the plot are essentially the same, although it deviates substantially in the details. Here, instead of simply holding the flying demonstration on the cliffs of Gaul, the Vikings take Justforkix back to their homeland, leading to Asterix and Obelix heading deep into enemy territory (elements of this new material borrowing from another book, Asterix and the Great Crossing, itself previously loosely adapted as Asterix Conquers America). A variety of new characters have also been thrown in, including a love interest for Justforkix in the form of Timandahaf's feisty daughter Abba, the nefarious soothsayer named Cryptograf, and his rather dense son Olaf.

These additions end up modifying the narrative quite noticeably, although for the first 20 pages or so, the film actually sticks very rigidly to its source material. So rigidly, in fact, that the breakneck pace at which the film operates gives the rather strange impression of skimming quickly through material that was always intended to be read at a leisurely pace, soaking up the details both of the complex wordplay and the detailed panels. There are, of course, various alterations to bring the film up to date: perhaps more than any other Asterix album, Asterix and the Normans is a product of its time, with the character of Justforkix clearly intended as a comment on the laidback lifestyle of the Swinging Sixties. (As such, the decision to adapt this out of all the available albums probably had more to do with the Danish filmmakers' own Scandinavian heritage than anything else.) The film attempts to rectify this by making the character more of a surfer type, but it's not entirely successful. Gags such as his carrier pigeon, Essemesse (SMS), who delivers text messages by carving letters and, at one point, a snapshot by making a replica out of ice, are actually quite funny and strike me as being the sort of material Goscinny would have served up had mobile phones and photo messaging been around when he was alive, but other anachronisms, such as the use of disco music and, in one cringe-inducing moment, surfing, strike a bum note.

Likewise, the aforementioned new characters don't really work, and feel like attempts to fit the story into a more generic framework, with Abba serving in the role occupied by pretty much every post-Little Mermaid Disney princess: feisty, independent and trying to escape from under the thumb of a domineering father. She even makes speeches about gender equality, which are extremely ill-judged and distracting. Her romance with Justforkix is also rather unimaginative, and while I understand its purpose (after all, the "becoming a man" character journey of the book really doesn't work in a 21st century context), it's too forced and by the numbers to be truly effective. Worse still, Justforkix overwhelms the narrative to the extent that Asterix and Obelix become mere background characters - a flaw not present in the book - while other elements, such as the resolution of the Vikings' quest to learn the meaning of fear, which is treated as a mere afterthought, become a bit submerged.

What does work, however, is the film's look. Visually, the Asterix films have been somewhat varied, ranging from the quasi-Flintstones look of Asterix the Gaul to the more accomplished films produced in the 1980s. The previous film, Asterix Conquers America, was animated at a variety of different studios spread across the world, and Asterix and the Vikings operated on much the same production model. The main base of operations was A-Film in Copenhagen, the same company responsible for Help! I'm a Fish, but the final credits crawl lists over a dozen different studios, from France to Hong Kong to India. As such, the quality of the animation tends to vary on a scene by scene basis, some of it impressive and some merely competent. The overall look, however, is very accomplished, thanks to some polished clean-up work and visually arresting art direction. The garish colour palette may be a little overcooked, but this is by far the most impressive-looking of all the Asterix films, and the attempts to integrate CGI (generally reserved for ships and other vehicles) are considerably less distracting than they were in Asterix Conquers America.

Somewhat less impressive is the voice acting. Like Asterix Conquers America, this film was recorded first in English and animated to that voice track (unlike the first six films, all of which were made in French). The English version features some fairly big names in the cast, with Paul Giamatti voicing Asterix, Brad Garrett as Obelix, Sean Astin as Justforkix, and John Di Maggio (better known to most as Bender in Futurama as Timandahaf). Of the bunch, Garrett and Di Maggio have had the most experience providing voice-overs for animation, but the rest of the main cast are a bit green around the gills, which unfortunately shows. Giamatti makes Asterix sound like a world-weary Jewish man in his 40s, which is oddly appropriate, since that description arguably fit Goscinny to a T when he wrote the book! His performance is a bit inconsistent, though, and quite often he sounds like he's hamming it up, giving his voice a rather forced quality. The same is true of the majority of the rest of the cast, with only Sean Astin's voice and performance seeming to truly fit his character. (Brad Garrett's deep rumble is quite well-suited to Obelix, although the amount of dialogue he is given seems a little out of place - a failing of the script rather than the voice acting.) The rest have the same effect I criticised in my review of Corpse Bride, whereby the voices seem disembodied and you never truly believe that the characters are actually talking. In fact, the lip sync is so wonky at times that I have my suspicions that this celebrity voice cast was brought in to replace an already existing English track, as happened with the awful Hoodwinked last year.

Despite these criticisms, Asterix and the Vikings leaves an overall impression of being one of the better adaptations of the series. We've been starved for traditional animation lately, and to see a new film that is not only hand-drawn but also drawn well is a rare treat indeed. Still, if you're already a fan of the book, don't expect this adaptation to convey the depth and tone of the source material, although, conversely, it may give you a newfound appreciation for what Goscinny and Uderzo were able to achieve in only 44 pages that the filmmakers struggle to convey in 75 minutes. That said, a new Asterix has been a long time in coming, and I only hope we don't have to wait another 12 years for the next one.

DVD Presentation

Back in November, I reviewed M6's French release of Asterix and the Vikings, and was impressed by the inclusion of both English and French audio and subtitles, and by the bonus materials, but disappointed by the overly harsh-looking transfer. Optimum's transfer is noticeably better: there's still a certain jagginess to the lines, and some compression artefacts are in evidence, but the image is, on the whole, smoother and more pleasing to the eye, without the edge enhancement that plagued the French release.

Unfortunately, in all other aspects of this release, Optimum have dropped the bomb. There are no extras whatsoever, and no subtitles either (so much for watching the film if you happen to be deaf or heard of hearing!). Furthermore, the only audio track provided is a stereo down-conversion of the film's English 5.1 mix. I can see no justifiable reason for this. The absence of the (in my opinion) superior French dub is reason enough to recommend avoiding this release, but the overly flat 2.0 audio just takes the cake.

All in all, this is yet another disappointing presentation of an Asterix film from Optimum, and one that continues the tradition of never giving these movies anything approaching a half-decent release in the UK.

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