Review for Asterix: The Mansions Of The Gods
I love Asterix! When I was a little boy and first let loose in a library, able at last to choose books for myself, instead of having them selected for me, I went straight for the pictures and words combination of comic books, and high on that pile were the Asterix books. They were fantastic adventures with colourful characters, and a wholly unique way of looking at the world, the ancient era seen through modern eyes. Unlike most of the other books that I liked as a child, Asterix has stayed with me, as I discovered just how subversive the books were, began to appreciate the wit and the satire, the sly winks at the modern world, and I have to say that I actually like the Asterix books now more than I did as a child.
I wish I could say the same about the movies. Like any popular franchise, movies were inevitable, and Asterix got the animated treatment pretty early on. But somehow the imagination of the comic strip never came across in 2D animation, and on top of that the puntastic English translation of the comic books was lost in dubs that had to fit lip flaps. Most disappointing of all was that those 2D animations lost all of the satire and wit of the comic strips; they became plain comedy action movies. The live action movies that have come in recent years with Gerard Depardieu as Obelix have fared better, especially those that were released in the original French with subtitles, but when it comes to animation, Asterix has always fallen short of the comic books.
That should have made me wary of a new animation, but there’s quite a lot different about Asterix: The Mansions of the Gods, made in 2014. For one thing, the animated Asterix franchise has caught up with the rest of Western cinema. It’s a computer animation, with3D characters, and all of the scope for action, and imagination available to CG animators. Indeed if you buy the Blu-ray, you get the film in full-on stereoscopic 3D. The second thing is that unlike the other books that have been animated, The Mansions of the Gods is one of the more satirical of the stories, and even through the adaptation and the English localisation process, I can’t see it losing too much of that biting wit.
All of Gaul would be nicely occupied, were it not for one little village on the coast of Brittany, whose inhabitants had the gall, and the magic potion to hold out against the Roman invaders. When colonisation and conquest fail, repeatedly, it’s time to resort to more imaginative methods, such as gentrification. Caesar has set his architect, Squareonthehypotenus the mission of turning the Gaulish village into a new Rome, a quaint bastion of traditionalism parked on the lawn of a modern metropolis. While the Gauls are happy to battle the Roman army, even they might balk at fighting Roman families. So Squareonthehypotenus has to clear the forest, put up the latest in Roman tenements, and prove to the Gauls that there is a better, more Roman way to live. The first snag is pulling down the trees, as Obelix’s faithful Dogmatix doesn’t like it when people hurt trees...
The DVD gets a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer on this disc and it’s probably as good as you’re going to get on DVD. The image is clear and sharp throughout, colours are strong, and the animation comes through without flaw or glitch. It’s a comparatively short film on a dual layer disc, so compression is really only limited to digital banding on scene fades, and the occasional shimmer on really fine detail. Asterix finally comes to life thanks the 3D CG animation. It’s fluid, vibrant, energetic, and offers an amazing scope of imagination to the animators. Having said that, the characters and the world they inhabit do tend to look a little sterile and toy-like, but that’s a common complaint I have with the medium.
You have the choice between DD 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo English on this disc, no sign of the original French, and there are no subtitles either, an absence which is felt for some moments of unintelligible dialogue. The quality of the animation means that on occasion some of the dub dialogue doesn’t fit the mouth shape of the characters, but otherwise it is a pretty neat fit. An insert song is left in French, but has no subtitles, but an exchange in Latin gets subtitles burnt into the print. The dialogue is mostly clear, and it’s certainly wittier and punchier than any of the 2D animation dubs, and the film also gets a decent surround presence, immersing you in the comedy mayhem and action. The film’s music too really drives the energy of the piece well.
The DVD disc autoplays with a trailer for Khumba – A Zebra’s Tale, before booting up to an animated menu. The sole extra on the disc is the film’s trailer.
That was surprisingly good, given my experience with the 2D animated Asterix movies. I sat down in front of the TV in a grump, arms crossed, glaring at it like Obelix in a sulk, daring it to entertain me. It took a while to get going, sticking closely to the plot of the book at the start, and once more the English dub translation not living up to the wit and wordplay of the English comic book translation. But just as I expected, this is a story that can’t be shorn of its satirical content, and watching Caesar put forth his scheme to defeat the Gauls through urban regeneration managed to get me smirking. What got me smiling was the quality of the animation, which is leaps and bounds ahead of the 2D animation of old. The fluid range of motion, the ability of characters to emote, and the ability for animator to bring their imaginations to the screen really do make this film entertaining.
What won me over in the end was when the film departed from the original comic book. In the previous animations, this happened when two books were adapted into one film, but in the Mansions of the Gods, it takes a path to a different conclusion, really playing up Caesar’s scheme even more than the book, while the introduction of the Roman family, now with a young son, hoodwinked into moving to the Mansions of the Gods, really gives the film a heart. They’re blackmailed into the housing scheme in Rome by ‘winning’ a prize in the Circus Maximus, but this time when they get to Gaul, their prize isn’t accepted as valid, so they wind up homeless. Wandering through the forest, their son Mischievus runs into Obelix and Dogmatix, and they become friends.
The graphic novel is abridged a little, downplaying the slaves’ storyline, but pretty much follows the text to the point where Cacofonix tries getting an apartment at the complex. His early morning singing signalled the cascade to the story’s climax in the book, but here the film takes a different route, really playing up the effects of the new neighbours on the Gauls, as they begin to assimilate Roman culture, to the point where the villagers even move into the apartments, leaving the village empty except for a couple of familiar stubborn holdouts. At this point, instead of trying to tell two stories in one movie as early animations did, The Mansions of the Gods borrows elements from other stories that work in this one, the Gallo-Romans of The Big Fight, the rabid commerce of Obelix and Co, and a plot twist regarding magic potion from The Roman Agent.
It all works together smoothly to tell one consistent story. Indeed the strength of The Mansions of the Gods is that while it remains faithful enough to the original source, it knows when to depart from it to deliver the cinematic experience. It’s well written, beautifully animated, and the English voice actor performances really do serve the story well, even if the constraints of the dubbing process means that the wit of the text translation can’t all be carried over. Best of all, it’s fast paced, delightfully funny, and animated with great imagination. There’s one of Obelix’s traditional assaults on a Roman camp in the movie, but this time the point of view is several metres above the action. Instead we’re treated to pummelled Romans soaring in the air, set to balletic classical music.
Asterix: The Mansions of the Gods is the best Asterix animation yet, with the 3D CGI animation bringing these characters to life in ways that the old 2D animation never could. It’s an entertaining, and funny family film that will work for children of all ages, even middle-aged children like me, and this DVD will be a welcome stocking filler come Christmas. The Blu-ray will be even more welcome.