Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Thoughts on... Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion (spoilers)

This should be a good year for Asterix lovers, with the publication of a new album (by Ferri and Conrad) on October 24th, and the release (outside France) of a new animated film with an original story... if you're lucky enough to be able to see it.
Asterix: the Secret of the Magic Potion is a 3D CG animation produced under the auspices of Alexandre Astier and Louis Clichy, who made the very impressive Asterix: The Mansions of the Gods, of 2016. That film received a national theatrical release in the UK (although it was only available to me in 2D when I went to see it) and had a British voice dub. In the UK, it got a 3D Blu-ray release with the British dub as the only language option. The Secret of the Magic Potion hasn't been treated nearly so kindly... 
My experience was that the purported release date of 30th August came and went and it didn't appear in any of the listings for my local cinemas. I could find no screenings of it online until I stumbled across two showings only in one cinema in London I wouldn't be able to get to. I perhaps should've been more suspicious at the level of unavailability, but as it didn't appear to be heading to Netflix or Amazon, I didn't consider VOD as a possibility. It was only when someone with Sky asked me if I'd seen this new Asterix film that, well, I realised they'd done one of their devil's pacts for simultaneous TV releases. At the time of writing, you can watch it with a Sky Cinema or NOW TV subscription. Of course, it's not in 3D, and apparently not to spend any more money on it than absolutely necessary, buys in the American English dub.
I've subsequently found out that Altitude are handling the UK theatrical distribution and you can find if it might be showing near you at asterixfilm.co.uk. Also, if you can get to the Institut Franรงais, in London (natch), this month you'd even be able to catch it with the original audio and English subtitles.

I was kindly offered to watch it through that Sky subscription, so I have now seen the film and had a whale of a time.
Perhaps I'll start my thoughts with the dub: I've never watched an Asterix film with anything other than a British dub before, and while I know that's not as authentic as the French original, it at least retains an essential Europeaness (come at me, Brexiters), as I imagine a German or Spanish dub, for example, would for other audiences. I think it helps that the Bell-Hockridge translation/adaptation of Asterix to English in the first place is so witty and astute that when reading or watching in English, you never really consider you might be missing anything.
While I'm pleased that the US dub retains all the Bell-Hockridge names (I know they haven't always and without which I fear I may have been lost) and all the actors do a credible job in their roles, the accents do strike dissonant to my ears. I don't know if it's just as part of this dub that there's also a curious musical choice; Dead or Alive's You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) is used in both an early and late sequence. It's certainly an odd choice tonally (it's the only pop music in the score), but I found it even more jarring when at points where the track is required to quieten in order for us to hear action/dialogue, it's processed to sound as if it's coming from a speaker, leading us to understand it's actually diegetic, which makes little sense and is not supported by anything we can see. [edit: You Spin Me Round does, apparently, appear in the credits of the French version, but hopefully I can still blame the mixing of it on the English dub.] There are a couple of instances where there is text on screen and this appears as untranslated French. The dub doesn't let you get lost with what's happening, but you'll miss a couple of jokes if you can't read them. And that's my final point on the dub: I don't know whether it's down to the original script or the translation, but I can't remember a single pun spoken in this film, which seems very strange indeed for Asterix.

With that said, those are the majority of my quibbles with the film. I had a great time with what I saw, and it is a film chock full of good cinematic storytelling. Take for example the opening scene, in which Getafix is cutting mistletoe high in the trees, tries to catch a falling baby bird, and falls himself. The action is clear, there is humour and character in abundance and as an individual sequence it is carefully structured to set itself up and pay itself off. It very concisely shows how well the designs and dynamism of Albert Uderzo's drawings have been translated into three-dimensional space (the animals in this sequence feel quintessentially Uderzoesque as well) and have been carefully textured to give just enough of a sense of surface not to conflict with the stylised design. Also, the film quickly marks out just how precise and expressive its animation will be. I must emphasise that the character animation is absolutely on the money. There is a very high fundamental level of craft here, as there was in Mansions of the Gods.

What of the story? Well, it hangs off Getafix's fall, his injury and his subsequent realisation that, mortal as he is, he can't be the only one to keep the secret of the magic potion that gives the villagers their superhuman strength. Asterix and Obelix then escort him on a mission to find a worthy apprentice, and this is where a disgraced former druid by the (rather on-the-nose) name of Demonix appears, set to thwart his old rival Getafix, learn the secret recipe of the potion and gain as much power as possible.
It's possible there might be a doubt with an original story rather than a direct adaptation that the writers/directors will not capture the essence of the source material, but I'm in no doubt here that this is Asterix. On one hand, it is absolutely steeped in Asterixiana, to the extent that, where Mansions of the Gods was a very faithful, slightly elaborated adaptation of one of the very best Goscinny-written stories, Secret of the Magic Potion plays like a best-of for the solo Uderzo books. Hallmarks include cameos from past stories (Cassius Ceramix from The Big Fight, for example, makes a notable appearance) and Asterix wandering off after a fight and discovering plot-relevant information, the fantastical elements played up (and scaled up) like in The Great Divide and The Falling Sky, even giving Cacofonix a significant role to play (rather than being the punchline) like in The Magic Carpet. Also, the village hews close to apocalypse again, as it does more than once in Uderzo's albums. But beyond all the familiar elements, The Secret of the Magic Potion shows it really understands the ideas it's playing with, how story bits go together and how vital the characters are to all of this, and that's what makes it rather great. I think a really important exemplar of the film understanding of what it's doing is introducing two rather indelible new characters; a young girl of the village with an inventor's mind, Pectin, and an apprentice druid, Teleferix (at least, that's the French character name and I can't recall or find anywhere if he's named differently in English).

Teleferix, as a potential apprentice to Getafix and a pawn of Demonix, has a rather large lesson to learn and Pectin... well, that's where the film most surprised me. Pectin is introduced soon after we learn Getafix is to seek an apprentice among trainee druids, just as she's attempting to perfect an invention. I naturally thought that this was an opportunity for a nice progressive streak of feminism and she was going to become Getafix's successor, against the odds, by the end of the film. Sure enough, she tags along on the adventure, expectations set against her throughout the course of the film, and finally, she's in a position to make the magic potion herself - she's seen all the ingredients and Getafix shares the last secret with her so he can battle Demonix to give her time to cook it up and then... they succeed, the day is won and everything goes back to normal. Getafix dispenses with the help of Teleferix and seems to have regained confidence in his ability to bear the burden of the secret (ultimate) weapon after facing down Demonix.
At the customary celebration banquet, Pectin apologises to Getafix for not being able to forget the recipe despite trying and he reassures her, saying he's sure she will forget (which, while I'm sure this is not the intention, potentially has some sinister undertones). However, as she runs off to play with the other children, Getafix says to himself something like: "Or will you, I wonder...?" and the look of realisation in his eyes tells that, for the first time, he considers he might be able to trust his secret (power) to a woman. Well, to say that's underwhelming as a progressive statement is quite an understatement. It nearly floored me how ungenerous that concession is, and it made me reassess what I'd been anticipating. Whereas I'd been expecting the Pectin/Getafix relationship to be about her coming into her own from her perspective, it's really all about Getafix the patriach getting to that small window of realisation. That speaks volumes for the fictionalised culture it is taking place in, and I wonder what it says for modern French culture as well. I was surprised, but also rather delighted that it had subverted my expectations. The Asterix stories, for all their good points, have never really made very great strides with feminism, as is rather exposed when Uderzo attempts to broach the subject in 1991 with The Secret Weapon. Still, The Secret of the Magic Potion is on point here with attitudes to imperialism, the military, tyranny and ultimate weapons.

It was a surprise that Asterix and Obelix are really only here in strong supporting roles, but it's not at all to the film's detriment. There are many other incidental pleasures and surprises, such as a hand-animated flashback, a Jesus joke, a 2D map sequence, a helicopter sight gag and a wonderful ellipsis with druids that is within moments funny, develops Cacofonix's character and raises the dramatic stakes. The rock-'em sock-'em robots final fight is the sort of thing that only really happens in the Asterix films (and The Falling Sky), but it's a good pay-off in many ways, certainly witty enough and, while once again accompanied by You Spin Me Round, is certainly more fitting here than it was in The Adventures of Tintin.

To sum up, I think this my favourite Asterix story for many years (I can't wait to see it again) and I strongly recommend you seek it out if you're an Asterix or animation fan, or just a lover of good film craft.

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