From time to time in his work and elsewhere, Jean-Luc Godard will remind us that it was the French that invented cinema. It can be a useful reminder in trying to make sense of Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar, starring Gottfried John as Caesar, largely because of the job it makes in trying to appeal to that magical mass American market. So what happens when you take that trusted and expensive blueprint to France?
Fans of Asterix books, of which there are many, will not know whether to be excited or disappointed. I imagine that much of Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar will have them reaching for the tramadol, but then they are never going to be short of work in their viewing, with the huge amount of references, beautifully created images, and amalgamated stories. It is a bit of a spotter’s paradise.
For example, Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar features scenes and elements from several Astérix stories, including Asterix the Gaul (Getafix's abduction), Asterix and the Soothsayer, Asterix and the Goths (the Druid conference), Asterix the Legionary (Obelix becoming smitten with Panacea) and Asterix the Gladiator (the characters fighting in the circus). It doesn’t stop there though, and characters and jokes from other books abound, including a brief but priceless exchange between Caesar and Brutus taken from Asterix and Cleopatra, and the villain Lucius Detritus who is a slight reworking of the antagonist of Asterix and the Roman Agent.
What is at times incredible is how well adapted the faces and tableaux are. The Roman legionary that Obelix calls ‘Christmas Bonus’ is so well cast that he almost makes the film worthwhile, and anyone that knows the book will recognise his face. And Gottfried John as Caesar is another piece of masterful casting.
Masterful casting, mournful production maybe? The real joy in watching Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar is the casting, and you can’t often say that.
It will come as no surprise to viewers of Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar that it was at the time the most expensive French film ever made, and today it still ranks in the top three, or five at least. Herein lies the problem as I see it, and this would be the obvious time to bring back in Jean-Luc Godard, because Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar’s huge strength — its budget — is also going to be what drags it down to the pit in which it’s been residing since its launch.
The problem is that in spending large amounts of money on a film, as they do in America, producers and their backers will oblige the director and crew to make a certain type of film. This certain type of film will have wow moments, and it will have large set-pieces — and it will have a certain length and structure, knitted together pretty much to formula. The problem in copying that Hollywood USA formula is that Hollywood USA is an expert at this, and the rest of us less so. The feeling is uncanny. We’re used to the structure and the layout of spectacular films, but we are used to seeing it done so much better. Most crucially, if Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar was constructed to take on the American audience, which it feels like it was, it would have been certain to fail there.
There are further criticisms to come and one of these is the dubbing. Although the dubbing improves at points in the film, Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar suffers from poorly matched vocal recording, which is a shame because I expect it required English speaking audiences to survive. Anyone can overlook dodgy dubbing in a low budget 1970s horror or crime thriller, but it’s harder to do in a high-budget epic from 2000, when there must have been better technology, and more time to make more takes to get it right. Consensus is that the English subtitles available on the French version are so poor as to make no sense at times, but that may still be preferable.
Attention is paid to the important images however; you’ll see the Gauls eating boar in the moonlight, while Cacofonix lies tied up, or suspended nearby. You’ll see Romans flying into the air as the Gauls punch them out of the way, and you’ll even see a village fish fight, a Roman ambush in the forest, and the excitement of Geriatrix as he leaves his young wife to take some potion and fight the Romans.
At the end of the day though, Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar does battle between commercial necessity and the demands of the true fans. It’s a good role for Gottfried John, and it’s a fairly major part, although I was sorry to see him bumped so far down the credits. I can’t explain that, but Gottfried John, far from prancing about as Caesar giving orders, has a human role too when he is captured by the Gauls, and combines this well with the theatrical motions and poses he strikes as the Roman leader.
The killer blow in Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar is the swearing, which must have confused the hell out of American audiences. Whatever the producers wanted from Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar, there is absolutely no doubt that much of the world is going to see it as a children’s entertainment. I know the books don’t exactly reflect this, and although many children read the books, this is film, and it is going to be hard marketing it as anything other than a children’s movie.
Why then have Julius Ceasar calling people ‘shitheads’, feature a scene with magic mushrooms, and cast about words like ‘bastard’ throughout? The care that American producers take over such detail is not simply arbitrary or based on morals. The exclusion of certain words and actions in American film is geared precisely to financial return.
Moving on to the curiosity factors, there are many in Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar, such as the fact that Terry Jones dubs Gérard Depardieu (who plays Obelix). Maybe some films are such overall curiosities that people will always see them, just to dig about. Taking this line, you may be interested by to see by the end of your viewing of Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar, that Dogmatix (which I felt they constantly mispronounced throughout the film) appears to be Asterix's dog, not Obelix's.
Then there is convention, dreaded convention. For a plot to work, it is often the case that a vital action be introduced, the classic I suppose being ‘the phone lines are down.’ In Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar, it’s revealed early on that the magic potion used by the Gauls only lasts for ten minutes. Such a time limit is never implied in the original books, where the potion's effects can last for several hours, (cf Caligula Minus holding a rock up for several hours in Asterix the Gaul; and Codfix retaining superhuman strength overnight after drinking a ladelful of potion in Asterix and the Great Divide.) This is as I say, just cinematic convention, and the rules need to be laid down before the engines can start turning.
For me, Gottfired John is one of the guys that saves this steaming pile, and you can tell he’s studied the cartoons and rehearsed bumping into Caesar’s famous poses. Overall, the mess is probably too long, but he’s one of the things that keeps it going, with a caricature that meets the grade cinematically, and one that I am sure pleased the fans who were looking for a complete effort that they could treasure.