Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom (now on Netflix) is the latest of many films based on Asterix, the French comic book dating back to 1959 and carrying one hell of a legacy: 16 movies, oodles of merchandise, a theme park and, per this photo on Wikipedia, Asterix-themed “ham and cheese flavored potato chips.” You know what they say – your franchise isn’t officially a success until it’s been immortalized with ham and cheese flavored potato chips. The Middle Kingdom kinda reboots the film series, with Guillaume Canet directing and playing Asterix, and Gilles Lellouche as Obelix (a role previously held by Gerard Depardieu in multiple live-action films). It’s also one of the rare Asterix movies not to directly adapt a story from the comics; it takes our heroes to China and back, a wacky adventure full of tangents and drawn-out gags and a couple of notable extended cameos by famous celebs.
The Gist: The Middle Kingdom may serve as an introduction to Asterix for international audiences, being on Netflix and all (the streaming giant also is producing an animated series for release later this year), so it may behoove you to know that it’s set a few decades B.C. in the general vicinity of what will become France and Belgium. A stronghold of native Gauls has resisted Rome’s conquering forces thanks to a magic potion that gives local hero-doofuses Asterix and Obelix superheroic strength. Asterix is a flimsy guy in a winged helmet who glugs some of the potion and uppercuts bros right out of the frame, and Obelix is a chubby brute who once fell into a vat of the potion and therefore has permanent super strength. They’re best pals, accompanied by Obelix’s little yappy terrier Dogmatix. We meet them as Obelix carries a boar under one arm for supper, and Asterix wonders if they shouldn’t eat a little healthier, since they have pork for every meal. The mere thought of eating a vegetable makes Obelix snort and laugh incredulously. And then they come across two cowering Roman soldiers in the woods – Asterix and Obelix apparently have a reputation – so Asterix takes a swig of his juice and his mustache flutters and he clobbers them into the next century.
One day, Graindemais (Jonathan Cohen) returns to the Gaul village with precious cargo: Chinese princess Fu Yi (Julie Chen) and her bodyguard Ka Ra Tay (Leanna Chea). Get it? “Ka Ra Tay”? LULZ. Then the voiceover narrator (Gerard Darmon) butts in to tell us “this is a flashback” as we learn how a doofus like Graindemais ended up with Asian royalty in his carriage, in a long, rambling scene that goes on and on but at least fills itself up with jokes, just like this sentence dithers and blithers pointlessly, except minus the jokes. I’ll be brief: It’s a sequence that takes its sweet-ass time showing us how the princess’ mother, the Empress (Linh-Dan Pham), is captured and imprisoned by traitors staging a coup; meanwhile, Graindemais sneaks the princess out of the country. Now, I absolutely need to bring up how one of the perpetrators of the coup is a man named Deng Tsin Qin (Bun-hay Mean), which cannot go without being mentioned because, well, say it out loud. This movie/franchise has a thing for “funny” names.
Back in Europe, the Gauls powwow under Chief Vitalstatistix (Jerome Commandeur) to figure out what to do about all this. It is soon determined that Graindemais will turn the cart around and take the princess and her protector back to China, with Asterix and Obelix coming along to help spring the Empress from the clink. A couple things become prevalent as they journey to the Far East: Asterix takes one look at the princess and his heart is a-flutter, and you can tell because the wings on his helmet look, well, aroused. And Obelix watches as Ka Ra Tay martial-arts the living snot out of some pirates, and he develops some feelings. Meanwhile, in Rome, Julius Caesar (Vincent Cassel exclamation point!) catches wind of the political unrest in China – and shrugs. Until he learns that Chinese people don’t know who Julius Caesar is, and his ego can’t handle that, so off he goes a-conquering. Besides, he needs to distract himself from the fact that his wife Cleopatra (Marion Cotillard multiple exclamation points!!!!) thinks he’s a fool and laughs at him all the time, like this: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH. Hopefully you’re laughing, too.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: This is my first Asterix and Obelix endeavor, so I’m going to assume that this franchise, with its lengthy joke-stuffed tangents and satirico-farcical tone functioning at the service of hardly any plot, is the Franco-Belgian version of Monty Python (Holy Grail 4 life!), Mel Brooks comedies or vintage Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoofs.
Performance Worth Watching: Cotillard’s as a cackling Cleopatra? Priceless. You’ll wish she had more significant screen time so we could A/B the performance with Liz Taylor’s.
Memorable Dialogue: A Chinese officer announces the planned public execution of the Empress: “Fires will be stirred. Book early to avoid disappointment.”
Sex and Skin: None beyond a trace of visual innuendo.
Our Take: Whoever translated subtitles for Netflix has a thing for Asian-stereotype names: Characters include To Foo, Ka Ra Tay and Ku Koo, so feel free to question the taste and/or judgment of the involved parties. Beyond that, The Middle Kingdom is silliness for its own sake. The comedy consists of anachronisms, sight gags, cartoonish slapstick and Marion Cotillard’s mean-spirited laughter, and only the latter inspires a quality guffaw and doesn’t wear out its welcome via repetition. Carrier pigeons land with text-message chimes, travelers gripe about “chariot lag,” armies stomp-stomp-CLAP the beat to ‘We Will Rock You.’ The fruit hangs low.
Whether any of this jibes with earlier Asterix adventures, I’m not sure. But it seems like a less-than-ideal introduction to the franchise, as the jokes miss more than they hit, and Canet’s Asterix is a bland characterization that doesn’t leave much of an impression. The screenplay is structured episodically, cycling through sequences with the Empress in prison (vaguely funny at best), Asterix and crew’s journey (funnier, but only within the context of this mediocre movie) and Caesar’s conquest of China (funniest, but that’s not saying a whole lot). It meanders and dithers and loiters as if waiting for something amusing to happen, and something amusing does happen, but not quite often enough. Not surprisingly, Cassel and Cotillard elevate the proceedings with limited screen time, but is the movie worth watching just for them? Not really.
Our Call: The Middle Kingdom is for Asterix familiars and diehards only, who’ll tune in out of curiosity, to see if the new creative group behind it gets any traction. Your mileage, as they say, will vary. It’s generally more miss than hit, though, so I gotta say SKIP IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.