Cinema: 'Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom,' a star-studded gamble

Cinema: 'Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom,' a star-studded gamble
Credit: Belga

It’s one of the most anticipated French films of the beginning of the year. Asterix sets sail for China in ‘The Middle Kingdom,’ taking the risky gamble of an XXL cast, where the likes of Gilles Lellouche and Marion Cotillard rub shoulders with football, rap and YouTube stars.

Eleven years after ‘Asterix and Obelix: On Her Majesty’s Service’, the film, in cinemas on Wednesday, was a challenge for director Guillaume Canet, who also succeeds Édouard Baer in the Asterix costume.

After ‘Ne le dis à personne’ and the success of ‘Petits mouchoirs,’ one of the most popular figures in French cinema is tackling his first blockbuster, and a national monument. “It was far from what I knew how to do! The special effects, the huge battle scenes? I wondered if I was going to be able to do it,” he recalls.

No more Gerard Depardieu. In come Gilles Lelouche

A big change: Obelix has said goodbye to Gérard Depardieu. It was a heavy task for Gilles Lellouche, who is close to Canet, to take over this character who is as powerful as he is endearing. He confides: “Depardieu was a spectre, a ghost above me, very crushing.”

In the year 50 BC, the irreducible pair of Gauls, heroes of Uderzo and Goscinny’s comic books, must come to the aid of Chinese princess Fu Yi (Julie Chen), whose empress mother has been imprisoned following a coup.

To free her, they set off for the Middle Kingdom, without suspecting that Julius Caesar’s army has taken the same route, with a completely different goal: conquering China.

For the first time, this Asterix film is not adapted from an existing comic book. An album based on the original story will be released in bookshops a week later.

A host of stars, from singer Angèle to Zlatan Ibrahimovic

On the menu of this incredible, burlesque epic, a few must-sees: devoured wild boars, sunken pirate ships, Romans clobbered into stratosphere and Kung-fu, as the script requires, all sprinkled with magic potion and the traditional anachronisms of the series.

Above all, it is packed with stars: Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel as the electric couple Cleopatra and Caesar; José Garcia as Biopix; Philippe Katerine as the bard Assurancetourix; Ramzy Bedia and the hilarious Jonathan Cohen as the Phoenician merchants Epidemais and Graindemais (read 'Epi-de-mais' and 'Grain-de-mais,' literally 'Ear-of-corn' and 'Grain-of-corn').

Guillaume Canet has also chosen to invite stars from other horizons: singer Angèle becomes the sweet Falbala, OrelSan slips into the skin of Titanix, the rappers Bigflo and Oli make an appearance, as well as YouTubers McFly and Carlito, not to mention a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic under the Roman helmet of Antivirux.

"We needed actors that people love,” explains Guillaume Canet, in this case “very popular” personalities, who speak to a youth that no longer goes to the cinema as much.

The joy of making film in a 'very free and broad way'

“Big films like this one represent the joy, the celebration of making cinema in a very free and broad way - no group, no family, no compartments,” adds Gilles Lellouche.

It remains to be seen whether this Asterix will find its audience in cinemas, as no French comedy has managed to make a clear mark at the box office since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. It will be difficult to do better than 'Mission Cleopatra' (2002), Alain Chabat’s success with more than 14 million admissions and lines that have become a cult.

Guillaume Canet also hopes that his Gauls will appeal to foreigners. The film is already sold “almost everywhere in the world,” but not in China, where Canet had travelled with Emmanuel Macron before the pandemic.

The plan then was to shoot part of this latest Asterix adventure at the foot of the Great Wall. The script had been accepted, even if the regime had asked to “change a few things,” Canet recalls, “details, jokes that they didn’t want in relation to the pandas.”

In the end, Canet says, Covid-19 and the lockdowns got the better of this ambition.

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