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Let’s face it, this is only a cartoon film, and anything goes.


The Twelve Tasks of Asterix


While I’m a big fan of the Asterix books, at least up until somewhere around Asterix and Son, this is the first time I’ve visited an animated adaptation. Part of that was simply availability; aside from The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, for which I still have a forty-year-old copy of the text album, I was unaware of their existence at an age when they’d have most appealed (I now recognise these things are rarely as good). Part of it was a wish to avoid the live-action versions I was aware of, since it seems to me the Uderzo art is intrinsic to their appeal (and for many, the Goscinny writing also, consensus suggesting the books fell off a cliff after he died). For similar reasons, I have no desire to see the “live-action” Garfield, who doesn’t remotely resemble Jon Davis’ creation. The Twelve Tasks of Asterix is… It isn’t bad. While it’s scrappy, cheap and cheerful – but wasn’t all ’70s animation? – the Goscinny and Uderzo style of humour occasional shines brightly through.

Indeed, the bureaucratic nightmare of The Place That Sends You Mad (Task Eight) is up there with the best, most sophisticated (or “adult” if you like) ideas the book series has come up with; referee Caius Tiddlus instructs our duo to visit an office building and obtain a certain permit that will allow them to go on to the next task; “I see. nothing but a simple administrative formality” responds Asterix confidently. Alas, the quest for this permit, the A38, entails their being directed and then redirected to an endless series of clerks, offices and forms awaiting completion; madness beckons (Obelix’s trousers run off without him), until Asterix brightly turns the wheels of administration in upon itself by requesting a fictional new permit (the A39, as stipulated in the new Circular B65), the resulting confusion sending the officials potty themselves.

There’s an almost incidental nature to some of the tasks, set by Caesar and agreed by Vitalstatistix (if they win, Caesar will hand over the Roman Empire; if they lose, the Gauls will surrender), which are: 1. Asterix defeating Olympics champion Abestos in a foot race; 2. Asterix beating Persian Verses at javelin; 3. Asterix beating German Cilindric at judo; 4. withstanding the lure of the Sirens on the Isle of Pleasure; 5. resisting the mesmeric abilities of Egyptian hypnotist Iris; 6. consuming a feast prepared by Calorifix, great chef of the Titans (the feast must be eaten to last crumb); 7. passing through the Cave of the Beast – no one has ever come out alive; 8. They’ve all been to the place that sends you mad” ; 9. crossing a canyon over an invisible tightrope; 10. solving the riddle set by the old man of the mountain; 11. spending a night on The Plain of Departed Spirits; and 12. facing the gladiators and animals of the Circus Maximus.

Siren: You ask for food? 
Obelix: Eating’s a pleasure – I want a nice wild boar.

The tasks pick up with the fourth, spotlighting the movie’s fairly lusty appetites, what with its isle full of buxom sirens enticingly suggesting “Bold warrior, give yourself up to pleasure”; it’s only Obelix’s more masticatory definitions that enable their escape: “Get lost, fatty”. Come the conclusion of their endeavours, he magics himself back to the isle, complete with boar; this scene is also notable for Caius Tiddius’ ejaculating wine goblet, spurting forth after he has been tickled/aroused by a siren. There’s more of that elsewhere, including a Bridget Bardot Venus up on Olympus, her prime rump on display. The Twelve Tasks of Asterix is just a little bit randy, (but no orgies, and certainly no fondue parties, albeit they amount to the same thing). Or perhaps it’s simply a touch French.

Asterix: You saw that? 
Obelix: Yes. He was flying low. We’ll have rain.

Causing frustration/ inspiring confusion in the taskmaster is also an effective source of humour, Asterix proving resistant to Egyptian Iris, who has already convinced one man he’s a cat and another a bird, and mixing up the hypnotist to such an extent that he mesmerises himself (“You are a wild boar. You are a wild boar”). “By Osiris and by Apis”, indeed. Likewise, the legionary ghosts on The Plain of Departed Spirits are upset by the sympathy they’re afforded (“They’re only trying to keep their spirits up”) and being told to shut up.

Reversals are effective too; the invisible thread/ tightrope ends up with fleeing crocodiles clinging to it. Obelix takes on the feast, and after a multitude of dishes, including whole elephant, has emptied the kitchen, much to Calorifix’ distress (“I’d only had me starters”). 

The Old Man of the Mountain – punishment for failure is being condemned to the infernal depths of hell – offers less a brainteaser than a washing powder ad (“Which pile was washed with Olympus, the god’s detergent?”) Which fits, because you could very well find Asterix being used to sell… well, anything. 

Such irreverence is the movie’s greatest trump card. The sway of opinion appears to be that most of the adaptations fail to reflect the books’ broad audience appeal and instead plumb squarely for the juvenile market, which is a shame. The Twelve Tasks of Asterix is probably directly reflective of its creators’ degree of control, in that case. A subway train speeds through the Cave of the Beast. Other anachronisms include a modern-day rubbish tip in the forest – upon which the narrator has to remind the animators it’s “50 BC, thank you”. A Centurion opines “These Gauls will make Latin a dead language, if Julius Caesar will insist on fighting them”. Caesar himself instructs “Brutus! Stop playing about with that knife. You’ll end up hurting somebody” (we next see Brutus with a bandaged thumb).

It also seems the more fantastical nature of the story failed to find favour with some aficionados at the time, since the stories stuck pretty much to “history” and the tangible – well, aside from the fundamental, super-strength-giving magic potion – rather than embracing gods and ghosts and the like. Come the end, Asterix, “whose adventures, on sale in all the best bookshops, have been translated into every language”, has a street named after him, Caesar having admitted defeat and that the Gauls are indeed gods. Caesar 

Is allowed to retire to the country, with Cleopatra in attendance (‘Julius, dinner’s ready”) and the Village is “now centre of the known world”, as they are really Masters of Rome. Yes, it’s Tarantino’s primary source for alternative histories.

Of course, there’s no way Caesar would have been so foolish, had the Romans known of the magic potion in The Twelve Tasks of Asterix. One might reasonably argue outright cheating is thus key to the tasks’ completion (remember Asterix and the Olympic Games, where Asterix didn’t take a tipple?) On the other hand, the dice are loaded anyway, with all this talk of gods. 

Vitalstatistix: I’ve got to be ready to be ruler of Rome.

Before introducing an alternate history – that is, alternate to the sanctioned fictional one where Caesar ruled a Roman Empire in power in 50 BC. Although, both this Asterix and officialdom retain globe Earth – Goscinny and Uderzo (with co-writer Pierre Tchernia; the movie is credited to the duo, Pierre Watrin and Henri Gruel), have Getafix warn Vitalstatistix that they shouldn’t expect Julius to honour his agreement and that “Caesar made a pact with the powers of darkness”. For whatever reason – it’s a cartoon – the makers decided to have him keep his promise.

The Twelve Tasks of Asterix was a co-production between Gaumont and EMI Films, which speaks to the characters’ cross-channel appeal (Goscinny and Uderzo were fans of the translations). The voice cast are a mixed bag; Michael Kilgariff is perfect as Obelix, and John Ringham likewise as Caesar (there’s a touch of the Kenneth Williams in there), but Sean Barrett, fine as Caius Tiddlus (and it seems various other characters) is too youthful and high pitched as Asterix; you’d think he was voicing Tintin. One has to assume the picture wasn’t a huge success, given it was almost a decade before another Asterix feature was made. Twelve Tasks is a likeable little movie, somewhat ramshackle in construction and execution but with enough inspiration to make it memorable. I still think there should have been a proper tie-in adaptation, though.

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