Friday, August 17, 2012

Asterix at the Olympic Games (2008)

Again, with the blazing speed and timeliness of Usain Bolt crossing the finish line, I bring you a review of a motion picture about the Olympics—this time 2008's Asterix at the Olympic Games. There's been three live-action Asterix films (with a fourth to follow next year); this is the third and by far the weakest, but there's still a lot of fun to be had with the timeless comic strip creations of René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. This one's loosely based on the twelfth book in the series, and was released to coincide with the 2008 Beijing Olympics. What better time then, than to review it...the week after the Olympics. I'm so sorry.

The plot's relatively simple: Asterix (Clovis Cornillac) and Obelix (the brilliantly cast Gérard Depardieu) battle Romans (and the rest of the Roman Empire) in the Grecian Olympic Games. It departs from the previous pair in the live-action Asterix series by creating a mostly-new script that incorporates rather than spotlights the original comic strip plot. It looks great: CGI and effects clearly benefited from a pricey €78 million budget, and there's great care taken to preserve the look and feel of the comic strips:

The movie adds a romantic subplot not present in the comics: the Gaul Lovesix has fallen in love with Irina, a Princess of Greece, played by the easy-on-the-eyes supermodel Vanessa Hessler.

Each of the live-action Asterix films has courted the dad audience by spotlighting an actress who is, to use the official motion picture industry technical term, babe-alicious: supermodel Laetitia Casta in Asterix & Obelix Take On Caesar and French model and actress Louise Bourgoin in 2013's Asterix & Obelix: On Her Majesty's Service (not to mention Catherine Deneuve as the Queen of England). And then, of course, there's the sight of Monica Belluci as Cleopatra in Asterix: Mission Cleopatra. Why, let's look at that sight now!

Don't worry, ladies, there's something in the movie for you too:

Okay, whenever you're ready, let's go back to Asterix at the Olympic Games. Take your time.

Critically panned but strong in European box offices, the film preserves many of the visual gags, dialogue puns, and epic visuals of the comic strip. It depends on a primary knowledge of the series' characters and the situation (well known throughout Europe), but an American audience unfamiliar with Asterix will find the plot easy to pick up.

Irina has been promised as a bride to the winning sportsman of the Olympics, so Lovesix (accompanied by his fellow Gauls) enters the competition, but Julius Caesar's jealous son Brutus (Benoît Poelvoord) plans to cheat his way to a victory. It's here the movie makes a misstep. Brutus is portrayed as a dishonorable buffoon—not as the wily but honorable warrior of the comic strip. Every minute the bumbling slapstick Brutus is on screen is a minute spent wishing Asterix and Obelix were back in the scene.

The whole Brutus/Lovefix/Irina subplot was created by the screenwriters for the movie, but its risk is in deviating too widely from the already sharp and well-timed comedy and adventure of the original comic strips. Ignoring the sharp pacing and plot rhythms of scripter Goscinny comes at a price—many Asterix aficionados consider the most recent Asterix strips, written by Uderzo following Goscinny's death, decidedly inferior to the rest of the series.

Not that you can't adapt an Asterix story fairly straight. I'm quite fond of Asterix: Mission Cleopatra, which is a mostly faithful and accurate adaptation in plot, dialogue, and visuals from its original source. Asterix at the Olympic Games could have benefited from the same treatment. The film runs two full hours, and shaving thirty minutes from it would have helped. Most of the third act, actually, which seems to last forever, could have been trimmed, not to mention a subplot of Brutus continually trying to murder Julius Caesar and failing each time with slapstick results. The ending of the film could have been trimmed severely too: it goes on longer than an entire village of hobbits jumping on a bed.

But all this is nitpicking. It's an Asterix movie, sacre bleu, and it has no other grand pretensions than to entertain, which it does in spades. The CGI work on the sporting action and the gorgeous vistas is impressive, and Clovis Cornillac (new to the role of Asterix) convincingly portrays the plucky little Gaul, and Gérard Depardieu is, again, exceptionally funny as Obelix. There's a lot of fun sports cameos (race car champion Michael Schumacher pops up as an Olympic charioteer), and prominent French actor Alain Delon plays Julius Caesar as straight as if he were doing Shakespeare's version.

So, the judge's final score cards are up, and while it's not a gold medal for Asterix at the Olympic Games, it's certainly a great deal of fun: light and inoffensive, enjoyable by both kids and adults, and an ideal introduction to one of the finest all-ages graphic novel series ever produced.

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