Spanning a glorious decade from 1967 to 1976, the first 'Asterix movies' period made all the fans worry about the little Gaul's ability to survive the untimely death of his creator René Goscinny, and that went for the books, too. The first solo albums written and drawn by Albert Uderzo almost proved them wrong but the recent Asterix Adventures were dreadful, overly sentimental, disasters.
Now, to have a look back on the movies: except for "Asterix the Gaul" which was more of a warm-up for the animators, both "Cleopatra" and "The Twelve Tasks" were pretty successful thanks to the careful supervision of both Uderzo and Goscinny. Their hard work reached a peak of excellence with the "Twelve Tasks", an original creation that transcended the slapstick and satire so typical of the albums to the more ambitious requirements of big-screen entertainment.
Sadly, Goscinny died, one year after the film's release, and couldn't even live to see the release of Lucky Luke's animated-feature "The Ballad of the Daltons". Asterix then remained absent from theaters for a whole long decade, until 1985, when both Pierre Tchernia and Albert Uderoz probably felt mourning time was over and the greatest tribute to their late beloved friend was to keep on making Asterix films. It was "Asterix vs. Caesar" (in French "and Caesar's Surprise'), and this is how the 'Gaumont' period started.
If "Asterix vs Caesar" isn't necessarily my favorite, I know it from early enough to be able to recite it line by line. Yet I still have a slight preference for "Cleopatra", "The Twelve Tasks" and the 1986' "Asterix in Britain", so my guess is that "Caesar" takes a honorable fourth spot. The film is enjoyable, entertaining, with a fair mixture of action, escapism and humor, but I'm afraid it might disappoint a younger audience because of some overuse of adult themes, foreshadowing what would become Uderzo's infamous storytelling style.
But there's one thing I've got to hand to the movie, it has one hell of a catchy theme song, far from the previous and more kids-appealing ones. The song "Asterix est là" ("Asterix is Here") is sung by the Belgian Plastic Bertrand, famous in the francophone world for his delirious hit-song "ça plane pour moi", and celebrates Asterix' come-back with lyrics full of Anglicism and adult puns I didn't get until my teenage days, but now, I realize how they firmly established Asterix' entrance in the 80's. Maybe it was a time for a more mature material, to please the kids who enjoyed the first films and became adults or teenagers.
And it's not surprising that the story they chose to focus on was "Asterix the Legionary", where Obelix (voiced for the first time by Pierre Tornade) falls in love with a local villager named Falbala. Oddly enough, as a kid, I was so thrilled by Asterix and Obelix's complicity that I was afraid it would be ruined by a romance; I probably had the same defensive reaction than Dogmatix. But the romance is only the starter and the story quickly mixes up with the plot from "Asterix Gladiator" where Caius Obtus, Cesar's most valuable promoter, is organizing Caesar's triumph in Coliseum Circus.
To make the events even bigger, slaves from all the conquered provinces must bow down to Cesar and naturally, there's a glaring omission, one forgotten province that still resists the invader. Back in Gaul, Falbala's fiancé comes back and breaks Obélix' infatuated heart, but the blonde-haired couple's reunion is short-lived by their sudden capture. An upstart legionary takes them to the Camp's centurion, (a shorter version of Pierre Tchernia, voiced by the same man) but fearing the Gaul's vengeance, the Centurion immediately sent them to the Roman Legion. Not that it will avoid him the Gauls' reaction anyway.
The mission is set, and to be able to rescue their friends, Asterix and Obelix follow their track, enlist in the Roman legion, and their journey send them from Condatum to Rome, passing by Africa. Meanwhile, a chain of events bring Falbala and Tragicomix on a silver plate to Caius Obtus, who got the Gauls to achieve his goals. Casar meet the couple and Tragicomix' defiance sentences him (with Falbala) to lions' penalty. Cesar is far crueler and villainous in this film, so far from his debonair attitude in "Cleopatra", still, as the host of the show will specify: the emperor magnanimously authorize the two Gauls to fight the lions bare-handed.
The film gets indeed pretty dark, and some parts, like Falbala singing in jail upset me a little. Jokes aren't rare though, and we're never as glad as when Asterix and Obelix are on- screen. On that level, the film contains many hilarious one-liners that compensate the overall seriousness of the story. To give a few examples, Asterix asks for the information office, to which he's advised to ask the information office. Another running-gag shows him teaching Obelix the merits of politeness except that he inevitably ends up using Obelix' punchier methods to get what he wants.
The legion part feature many great gags, they hate the food made of butter, lard and cheese cooked together, Obelix asks if the same every day, the cook reassures them: "No, Sunday, there's double ration". The film is so full of adult humor I only regret it being too dramatic, even melodramatic, I'm thinking right now as the climactic sequence where Dogmatix tries to get the magic potion's flask in Rome's sewerage while Obelix searches Asterix at the edge of drowning in his own cell. That part, mixed with Vladmir Cosma's heart-pounding score is so unlike Asterix' usual mood, but it works on a dramatic level.
The film has a great conclusion in the Coliseum, with probably the greatest best chariots race after "Ben-Hur" and overall, an emotionally satisfying ending. It's not the best Asterix film but a promising opener for the new Gaumont period, followed by the much funnier and entertaining "Asterix in Britain".