Popular animated hero Asterix and his faithful sidekick Obelix travel to ancient Egypt to help Cleopatra build a new summer home. Cleopatra and Julius Caesar have made a bet, with Caesar wagering the project cannot be completed in a few weeks time. With the help of a magic potion, Asterix comes to the rescue of the Queen of the Nile as Caesar and an angry architect plot against them.Written by
An 'epic historical drama' where every moment is a comic relief ...
In the "Movies-that-Made-my-Childhood" anthology, "Asterix and Cleopatra" is the number one. I grew up with it, my parents did (that's for posterity), I can recite it line by line, watch it again and again, I still laugh and may even discover subtle details in the process. But don't take my 'history' with the film as a bias; just watch it and you'll see that Disney had not the monopoly of entertainment, laughs and catchy songs. "Asterix and Cleopatra" is something special.
The first frame shows a funny-looking Egyptian with a deadpan expression. The narrator starts : "About two thousand years ago in the time of Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, the Egyptians talked like this" a speech bubble appears while the Egyptian talks in gibberish codified by funny drawings illustrating each sound he makes: a fly for buzzing, smoke for coughing, a bird for tweeting etc. After this hilarious nonsense, the narrator then concedes: "This language was rather difficult to understand, so the film you are about to see has been dubbed. However, due to the fact that dubbing techniques had not been perfected in this period, you may notice that the movement of lips is not always synchronized exactly with the words being spoken" The Egyptian proves his point by setting the tone: "And now after this interesting and instructive prologue, we are privileged to present a great historic epic drama".
The Egyptian is right on one thing, the prologue was indeed interesting and much, much instructive; however, I'm more doubtful about the word 'drama'. Which foreign drama (from most IMDb users' perspective) would acknowledge dubbing's inconsistencies? Hell, which animated feature would do so? To my knowledge, "Asterix and Cleopatra" is the only one to elevate the parody to such summits of hilarity. And it's only the beginning of a ten-laugh per minute spectacle, starting with a score imitating these historical epic peplum until it turns to Asterix' theme. The film is an adaptation of one of the most famous little Gaul's adventures, labeled then as the greatest story ever drawn. The cover exhaustively listed all the furniture that contributed to the making: pencils, paintings, pens, paper, beer etc. I guess any comparison with a little film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was totally fortuitous..
The 'Cleopatra' book was a great choice because only the big screen could recreate, even improve, the epic feel through music and majestic shots on Egyptian sites in the backdrop, before turning them into derision. This explains why the same story was used for Alain Chabat's "Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra" which became one of the highest-grossing movies of French cinema. The story is a winner, starting from the titular character: Cleopatra, the delightfully hot-headed, exquisitely histrionic and capricious (drama) queen whose nose would have changed the face of the world, had it been shorter. Cleopatra, voiced by Micheline Dax, is more of a prima donna in the film and this is the perfect characterization to make her funny without damaging her inner majesty. On the other side, the suave and debonair Julius Caesar doesn't sugarcoat his words and provokes Cleopatra by stating that Egyptians are decadent and lost their touch as far as architecture is concerned. Cleopatra then promises a sumptuous palace built in three months, it's a deal.
For that mission, she hires Numerobis (Edifis in English), the greatest architect of Alexandria but that's not saying much since his trademark consists on buildings that end up collapsing and make laugh the neighbors. It's a hit-or-miss for Edifis, gold or crocodiles (replacing the arena's lions in Egyptian tradition), who's got no other choice than asking for help Panoramix (Getafix for the English speakers), the old druid accepts and he's escorted by the village's best warriors: Asterix, Obelix and little Idefix (Dogmatix). In their adventure, they encounter the ruthless pirates whose 'boarding, slit-throating, destroying, massacring, and, sinking' are labeled by the green parrot as 'daily routine'; they face the vicious plots of Edifis' main rival Amonobofis (Artifis). He's not that bad actually, even offering his precious help. However, he only consents on sharing the gold in case of success, otherwise, Numerobis would be sent alone to the crocodiles. Anyway, it won't be an easy job, even Julius Caesar would try to undermine their road to success, but our Gaulish heroes find time to travel along the Nile and visit the Pyramids, where Obelix notices a little cameo of Santa Claus in the hieroglyphs.
And that's only one of the countless gags that transcend the 'epic historical drama' facade. Served by a dubbing from (among others) Roger Carel, Pierre Tornade and Micheline Dax, who were also the main French voices in the Muppets Show, the film also benefits from a great music. During the first visit in the construction site, it's slow, pompous and depressing, like the sight of the two workers struggling to pull a one-ton block of stone during overtime. But as soon as the workers drink the magic potion, it's as if the potion even fueled the music with a fast-pacing rhythm, catchiness and energy, it goes so fast, you might even miss some hilarious sight gags. The film also features an operatic duo between Cleopatra and her scene-stealing lion; a magnificent ode to the joys of food, when Obelix makes some entrechats with roasted boars and Asterix informs that the old adage changed "we don't eat to live, but we live to eat", this trippy parade is one of the greatest tributes to French' appetite and the best about food is still to come. Who'd have thought making a poisoned pudding could be so jazzy?
The film has everything: slapstick, verbal humor, music, even the obligatory happy ending is treated with a a subtle detachment. "Asterix the Gaul", the first film; met with popular success, but it was cheap and graphically poor. With a few songs, escapism, unforgettable secondary characters, the authors Uderzo and Goscinny finally found the recipe for a cinematic magic potion.
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