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The best Asterix film - in two very different versions
on July 19, 2006
For those not in the know, the Asterix books are a hugely successful series of comic books about a village of indomitable Gauls who resist Caesar's invasion thanks to a magic potion that renders them invulnerable supermen. There have been several animated features (only one of them, The Twelve Tasks of Asterix really capturing the wit and spirit of the books despite being an original screen story) before a perfectly cast Christian Clavier and Gerard Depardieu took the lead roles in two big-budget live action adaptations that proved colossally successful throughout Europe but made no impression whatsoever in the English-speaking world.
This follow-up to Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar/Asterix et Obelix Contre Cesar is easily the most successful attempt to get the books mixture of slapstick, anachronisms and highbrow classical humorous asides to the screen, mixing classical references (such as a great Raft of the Medusa sight gag or the Sphinx's broken nose inspiring Depardieu's Obelix to quote Cyrano de Bergerac), alongside more modern pop-culture references - mobile phones, Star Wars and even The Benny Hill Show. It's also incredibly spectacular and lavishly designed, putting many recent epics to shame. Some of the subtitles, however, leave a little to be desired, with joke names such as Matthieukassovix changed to Lennykravix for Anglophone consumption (very jarring when you can still hear the originals), but that's a minor complaint compared to the Miramax cut also included here. Not all of it works, but it's still great fun.
Despite paying a reputed $45m for both films, in a classic case of buyer's remorse Miramax completely re-edited the film (at least 21 minutes gone) and crudely dubbed it into English. Maybe Harvey Weinstein mistook it for a Hong Kong movie. Whereas Asterix et Obelix Contre Cesar was lovingly dubbed into English from a particularly good translation script by Terry Jones but otherwise left unaltered, that sort of thing really isn't the Miramax way. The results ain't good.
Aside from the voices for Gerard Depardieu and Monica Bellucci just seeming very, very wrong, a lot of the classical references are gone (the Raft of the Medusa and Cyrano gags among them), the pirates are reduced to a single sequence, alongside anything that seems too French or might slow the picture down, with the result that the first 20 minutes are now a real slog. Several punchlines to sequences are missing, Depardieu's part has been trimmed (his part was already fairly small because of his serious health problems during the shoot: the US version has been partially digitally regraded to change the unhealthy pallor of his face in the original!), and as usual with dubbing, because literal translations into English don't fit properly, lines are either rushed so much they're not funny anymore or the dialogue has been changed completely. A couple of these changes are admittedly funny, like one character dreaming of a world in which he could move his lips in French and hear the words in English, so it's not quite a total disaster, but very disappointing.
Still, Pathe's UK DVD gives you the choice of both versions in excellent transfers, even if it is at the cost of any extras (the French DVD was a lavish two-disc set, but without English subtitles). But you'd definitely be better off sticking to the uncut subtitled French version even if you're buying it for the kids - tell them think of it as a reading a book with moving pictures!