Saturday, 22 November 2014

French Animation, Chapitre 7 - Asterix: The Land of the Gods

Previously: The Secret of Kells

What is it?
Asterix is originally a French series of comic books created in 1959 by brilliant author René Goscinny (this reviewer recommends everything from him - Oumpah-pah, Le Petit Nicolas, Iznogoud, Les Dingodossiers, his Lucky Luke stories - it's all gold) and artist Albert Uderzo. It tells the adventures of a Gaulish warrior and his village resisting the Roman occupation. Asterix has become a massive success, and is one of the most popular French-Belgian comic series worldwide - if not the most popular. It has spawned numerous animated and live-action movies, of varying quality.

René Goscinny (left) and Albert Uderzo

The latest adaptation is based on the comic book called The Mansions of the Gods (the original title being Le Domaine des Dieux). It was written and co-directed by Alexandre Astier and directed by Louis Clichy. Astier is famous in France mainly thanks to his excellent TV show Kaamelott; Clichy has some Pixar background, having worked on WALL•E and Up as an animator.
In The Land of the Gods, Asterix's village is threatened when Julius Caesar comes up with a diabolical scheme: he plans to build an estate close to the village. In Caesar's mind, the Gauls will either have to adapt to the Roman civilization or disappear. And his plan might be working even better than he hoped…

Alexandre Astier (left) and Louis Clichy at the 2014 Annecy Film Festival

How is it?
It's terrific.
Alexandre Astier's writing adapts perfectly to the well established Asterix world. It's no surprise, as his style was pretty clearly influenced by Goscinny's work. The main difference between the two writers is probably the use of puns. Goscinny lived for them, while Astier seems more reluctant to use this kind of humour. But the rest is classic Asterix: from the witty, belligerent dialogue, to the occasional pop-culture reference, to the social comment; all of these were in the original comic books and find a natural place in The Land of the Gods story.
If I had a small criticism, it would be the overly reverential way the plot unfolds in the first half of the movie. At the beginning, everything is almost exactly the same as in Goscinny and Uderzo's book. It's still a very enjoyable movie at this point, but thankfully the more you advance in the film, the more Astier makes it his own - and it makes it even better. Goscinny's original idea is expanded upon and The Land of the Gods offers a much more cinematic experience than the source material did - quite rightly so. The climax, particularly, is a riotous bit.

The direction is very efficient; on point, well-paced, funny when it needs to be, it can also be dramatic and moving at some key moments of the story. Louis Clichy's way of placing and moving the camera is clever, his handling of the sequences adds something filmic and atmospheric to the source material. What I think this film brings to the Asterix theatrical "franchise" is the badassness - pardon my French. Never in the live-action films or in the previous animated movies had Asterix felt so heroic.
I must, however, stop the praise a second to address the elephant in the room: the look of the film. You could say it's like the characters jumped from the comic book to the screen. It's computer-generated, yet very stylized and the Uderzo drawings come to life before your eyes - except, not really.
Don't get me wrong, I think it's a delightful film to look at. It just seems like the characters and settings are trapped in the Uderzo lines. It's fine, as the Asterix universe is appealing; but I'm under the impression some believability got lost in the book-to-film translation and that the filmmakers could have gone further.
In that regard, I preferred the WETA way on Spielberg's Tintin. It still respected the characters' appearances while giving them a life of their own. You could believe Captain Haddock had years of merchant marine and drinking behind him. You almost saw it on his skin and in his eyes.
That being said, I should note that the budgets of the two movies were probably not quite comparable. So when I'm talking about a choice, it might be a choice by default.
Fortunately, the lighting is solid and the animators did a nice job giving the 3D models relatable emotions.

The casting is spot on. Credit where credit's due: legendary voice talent Roger Carel (French voice of Winnie the Pooh, C-3PO, Jiminy Cricket, Pongo, Kaa, Kermit, Hercule Poirot, Alf, Bernard… the list goes on) returns as the titular character and delivers another stellar performance; Roger Carel quite simply is Asterix and it's difficult to imagine another actor lending his voice to the Gaul.
The other actors are well chosen. Each character sounds pretty much how you imagine they should.

Before I end this review, three little things to look for in Asterix: The Land of the Gods:
- Opening credits that are very reminiscent of the Tintin movie.
- Obelix being controlled by the hair just like Linguini is being controlled by Remy in Ratatouille.
- A nod to Kaamelott so subtle that you won't even know it's there if you're unfamiliar with the show.

Asterix: The Land of the Gods is a success on pretty much all fronts. Funny, touching, clever; it instantly becomes my favourite animated Asterix movie and is up there with - in my humble opinion - the only enjoyable live-action adaptation, Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra.
Alexandre Astier and Louis Clichy did a remarkable job. Their love for the source material is palpable - perhaps to a fault - and they do it justice. One could say they have in fact veni, vidi, vici.

Next: ?

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