Astérix: The Secret of the Magic Potion (2018)
The Gaulish comic book icon, Astérix, gets a second polished, big-budget, CGI treatment following 2014’s Astérix: The Mansions of the Gods. In this handsome but middling offering, the diminutive Iron Age warrior (voiced by Christian Clavier in the French-language version/ Ken Kramer for the English release) and his rotund best bud, Obélix (Guillaume Briat reprising his role from the French version/ C. Ernst Harth taking over from Nick Frost internationally), are off on a mission across the length and breadth of Roman-occupied Gaul, looking for a suitable young replacement for their village druid, Getafix (Bernard Alane French-language/ John Innes English-speaking), who has decided he’s finally hit retirement age after falling out of a tree while harvesting mistletoe and breaking his leg.
Up against them is the usual assortment of Roman adversaries, this time led by a senator named Tomcrus — Astérix naming conventions run on puns, but this is one of their weaker efforts — along with Getafix’s old druidic rival, Demonix — ah, that’s better — (Daniel Mesguich French-speaking version /Mike Shepherd English-language), who wants the titular secret of the magic potion that Getafix brews up to give his warriors super strength. In their corner are the usual gang of maniacs (bard Cacofonix gets a more prominent role than usual), plus Getafix’s young female assistant, Pectin (voiced by Lévanah Solomon in the French version/ Fleur Delahunty English-speaking), and if you have any notion of narrative balance, you already have a fair idea of how she’s going to feature in the resolution of the main plot.
That is The Secret of the Magic Potion’s key failing: it’s all a bit simplistic, which runs counter to the charms of the source material. René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s comic albums, first published in 1959 and still going strong today, are surprisingly complex affairs, trading in deeply layered humor; slapstick physical pratfalls, wordplay, satire, and straight-up parody all combine to create a unique flavor of comedy. Their longevity flows from this — reading them as a kid, they’re broad and colorful, while as an adult, the more mature observations become more readily apparent.
This original film, written by Alexandre Astier, who co-directed with Louis Clichy (both returning from the previous Astérix CGI effort, The Mansions of the Gods), jettisons much of that for a narrative style optimized for the younger set. The colorful characters and big set pieces remain (albeit with the violence toned down in accordance with modern sensibilities), but the sly wordplay and national stereotypes are gone (one of the joys of reading Astérix was seeing which country he’d go to in each volume, and how ruthlessly that destination would be lampooned). It’s also worth noting that none of the celebrities who pulled recording booth duties on the last film came back for round two.
The result is a story that is fast-moving and robust enough, but may leave adults shifting in their seats — this is not a Pixar-esque effort, where more mature jokes are slipped into the gaps between the main action, but a film squarely aimed at children, and it feels like it. Also, Dead or Alive’s 1985 new wave dance floor banger, ‘You Spin Me Right Round’ features heavily on the soundtrack, for reasons that escape me entirely.
The film looks great, though. Uderzo’s clean, expressive character designs lend themselves well to being rendered in CGI, and the overall visual effect is as if you’ve stepped into the world of the comics. If you’re a long-time fan (and I certainly am), this alone will be enough to see you through The Secret of the Magic Potion’s speedy 87 minutes. Still, this feels like a missed opportunity. More care needs to be paid to the script in order to capture the weird alchemy of the Astérix books and, for all its technical acumen, this one falls short.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson