Philippe Moins turns the pages on Astix film production history to offer perspective for the latest animated feature, Astix et les Vikings, moving across European theaters.
In France, the Vikings were hardly remembered with fondness back in the Middle Ages, their name was synonymous with pillage and rape from when these northern invaders sailed along the Seîne in their longboats and brought terror to the local people.
However, things in Europe these days have moved on somewhat and now we have Scandinavians joining forces with the French to make the animated feature film Astérix et les Vikings, the first alliance between two cultures without any obvious affinities! The film, which skillfully combines both Scandinavian and French references, is based on the adventures of two legendary French comicbook heroes, Astérix and Obélix, and, very loosely indeed, on ancient history and Caesars conquests in Gaul. Its the eighth animated feature outing for the two Gallic warriors, which must be a record in the animation world.It should be said that within Europe, the saga has long since traveled beyond the French borders, particularly in Germany where the two Gauls are hugely popular. A phenomenon within the book publishing world, like Tintin, translated into dozens of languages, the adventures of Astérix and Obélix owe their success to a combination of highly verbal humor (not always that easily translatable) and drawings that appeal to a very wide audience.
In the late 50s, Uderzo, the series illustrator, developed a graphic style that clearly demonstrated the influence of American comics, yet added a distinctly French touch: his sinuous drawings combine caricature and realism, and are both well researched and stuffed full of deliberate anachronisms. Astérixs adventures feature the ritual and highly good-humored destruction of a good many Romans. The latter are extremely well organized (excessively so) and technologically superior, but they always lose since they dont understand the first thing about the Gauls.
The pirates pop up as a running gag from book to book, sinking to the ocean depths, watched ironically by the Gallic warriors who enjoy the advantage of a magic potion that makes them invincible. No doubt its this good-natured nationalism (fortunately) full of self-mockery that appeals to other nationalities. René Goscinny, whose credits also include Le petit Nicolas (with Sempé), Iznogoud (with Tabary) and Lucky Luke (with Morris) was the regular writer for the series, from its inception in 1959 for the comic strip magazine Pilote until his death in 1977. He was responsible for the best of the Astérix books. It was two of the latter that formed the basis of the film that will shortly be released in several European territories (the film has already opened in Belgium and France, and will soon be on release in Holland, Germany, Denmark, Finland and Norway).
Some will remember an initial and fairly disastrous though legendary adaptation from the Brussels studio, Belvision, in the 1960s. Goscinny almost lost his sense of humor when he discovered the studios first feature film, made without his knowledge, Astérix le Gaulois was animated in a style approaching that of The Flintstones, that cheap TV look. The studio boss had intended it as a surprise for Goscinny and Uderzo, which succeeded in spades. However, Raymond Leblanc, who was both director of the publishing house Editions du Lombard and the Belvision studios, had certainly come up with an idea of irrefutable logic: films based on the books would increase the popularity of the characters and hence book sales.
But the success of Astérix et Cléopâtre, again made at Belvision, led Goscinny and Uderzo to set up their own studio, Idéfix, in Paris with the French publisher Georges Dargaud. Idéfix produced the next set of films in the 70s and 80s, before disappearing into a financial black hole. In all, seven Astérix cartoons were made before this, the last of which was a Franco-German co-production (Astérix et les indiens), made in 1995 by Gerhard Hahn. More recently, there were the two live-action films (with a third on the way): Astérix et Obélix contre César directed by Claude Zidi (1999) and Astérix et Obélix: mission Cléopatre directed by Alain Chabat (2002).What could have prompted the producers to bring out a new Astérix cartoon, after a gap of almost 10 years?
The prospects for an animated feature are certainly much brighter in Europe now and the popularity of the Astérix books has grown ever greater, with Uderzo having continued on his own, for more than 30 years producing books that might have been of average quality, but enjoyed an increasingly vigorous marketing push, and each was a big success with the readers. Add to that, demand from a broadcaster. Every Christmas, M6 (a French subsidiary of the RTL Group, which belongs to German media giant Bertelsmann) registered its highest ratings by repeating the Astérix feature films. It didnt need much for M6 to launch into producing a new animated feature.
Under the aegis of Nathalie Altmann, exec producer on the film and M6s director of youth programming, M6 thus embarked on one of the most expensive European animation productions to date with a budget of 22 million euros ($25 million).
To make the film, M6 joined forces with the Danish studio A Film (the animation section of Nordisk Film, which belongs to the Egmont group), known for its prolific production of animated features. Based in Copenhagen, A Film is undoubtedly the biggest European studio, with sites in Germany, Estonia and Lithuania. The studios regular directors, Stefan Fjeldmark and Jesper Møller, proved they could adapt to the Astérix model. Fjeldmark has made films as diverse as Jungle Jack, Terkel in Trouble and Help Im a Fish, with the latter having been a particular favorite of Uderzo.Generally speaking, this new adaptation holds up well, as both the animation and the graphic style respect the spirit of the comicbooks, without abandoning the characteristics of a mainstream film: action, dynamic sound, rapid cutting all of which had been lacking in some of the earlier adaptations.
On the plus side, some of the films most successful features are the addition of new characters who blend in seamlessly with the traditional cast. The directors were helped having a scriptwriter who had been exposed to Astérix as a child. The Belgian Jean Luc Goossens found himself in his element in adapting the work of Goscinny and Uderzo. The result is a triumph of humor and the new characters developed for the film match well with the old. In their 60s comic (the film is based mainly on the book Astérix et les Normands), Goscinny and Uderzo made gentle fun of 60s teenagers; here, Goossens has provided an appropriate update whilst remaining very close to the original.
With most European animated features usually achieving good box-office results (when that happens at all) in their home territory, will Astérix et les Vikings manage to appeal to several diverse European audiences? In any case, this time the producers seem to have achieved a good mix of ingredients to make this possible. One thing already seems fairly certain the sales of back-catalog Astérix and Obélix books will certainly rise in those countries in where the film is released.
Philippe Moins is writer and teacher in Belgium, and also co-director of the Brussels Animation Festival ANIMA.
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