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Animated Asterix Films: 'The Twelve Tasks of Asterix'

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Introduction | Asterix the Gaul | Asterix and Cleopatra | The Twelve Tasks of Asterix
Asterix versus Cæsar | Asterix in Britain | Asterix and the Big Fight | Asterix Conquers America | Asterix and the Vikings | Asterix: The Mansions of the Gods


After the confident animated film that was Asterix and Cleopatra, Goscinny and Uderzo became ambitious. For the next animated Asterix film they would have complete control, creating not only a new Asterix script not based on any previous comic book adventure but also a new production company, Studios Idéfix, named after the canine character of Idéfix, known in English translations as Dogmatix.

Studios Idéfix

In 1976 The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, known as Les Douze Travaux d'Astérix in France, was released, with the story co-written and co-directed by Goscinny and Uderzo. This was the first, and sadly the only, Studios Idéfix Asterix animated film. Studios Idéfix had a delightful logo which played on the MGM Lion logo, with Dogmatix barking inside a circle surrounded by a Cæsaresque bay leaf laurel wreath and the motto 'Delirant Isti Romani!', which loosely translates into one of Obelix's favourite sayings, 'These Romans are crazy'.

The Plot

Having suffered frequent defeats by the Gauls, Julius Cæsar and the Roman army have had enough. Having seemingly forgotten all about the existence of the magic potion, many Roman senators and soldiers believe that the villagers must be gods. Julius Cæsar laughs at this, and, inspired by the legend of the 12 Labours of Hercules, proposes 12 tasks for the Gauls to complete. If the Gauls successfully complete all 12 tasks, he will concede that they are gods and allow them to rule Rome. However, if the Gauls fail in any task, they must submit to his rule and be taken to the circus.

Tasks

The 12 tasks that Asterix is set are:

  1. Run faster than Asbestos

    Asbestos is a Greek Olympic champion. His introduction implies that he is the current Olympic champion, and Asterix seems impressed. However, The Twelve Tasks of Asterix was written after Asterix at the Olympic Games, in which Asbestos does not appear.

  2. Throw the javelin further than Verses the Persian

    This is quite an amusing sequence with Verses a silent, strong type. It first introduces Native Americans to an Asterix film and establishes that the Earth is a globe. Not that Verses gets a chance to inform Asterix and Obelix of that, but from his actions and the behaviour of the javelin it can be surmised.

  3. Defeat Cylindric the German at wrestling

    Wrestler Cylindric the German is quite an amusing character and portrayed completely differently to other German characters in Asterix comics, such as in Asterix and the Goths. Asterix and the Goths had been written only 16 years after the end of the Second World War and the Goths in that were portrayed as fiendish villains, out to conquer Gaul while wearing First and Second World War helmets. By 1976 when The Twelve Tasks of Asterix was made, relations between France and West Germany were improving, especially after the continued influence of the European Economic Community. Thus Cylindric, as a German, is no longer portrayed as an enemy, although he does march in goose-step, but more a foolish fighter who causes his own defeat.

  4. Cross the lake containing the Island of Pleasure

    This is an interpretation of the famous myths regarding the Sirens, except that the sirens themselves are quite friendly, provided you don't ask them to do any housework.

  5. Look into the eyes of Iris the Magician

    Iris is a magician able to hypnotise those who look into his eyes, yet Asterix uses his wits and sense of humour to outsmart him in one of the funniest moments of the film. Iris is centre of the cover to the The Twelve Tasks of Asterix novelisation.

    The character of Jafar in Disney's Aladdin bears a strong facial resemblance to Iris. Like Iris, Jafar specialises in hypnosis.

  6. Eat a meal prepared by Mannekenpix

    Although he is known as Mannekenpix on the sign outside his kitchen, in the English novelisation he is referred to as 'Calorifix'. The meal consists of a boar with chips, turkeys, several sheep, a titanic omelette made with eight dozen eggs, a whole school of fish, an ox, a cow, veal, a mountain of caviar, a piece of wafer-thin toast to go with it, a camel and an elephant stuffed with olives. This fails to fill up Obelix. Obelix would encounter turkeys again in Asterix Conquers America.

  7. Enter the Cave of the Beast

    This is one of the film's most surreal sequences. The outside of the cave itself is shaped like a fierce monster whose mouth, the way into the cave, closes when Asterix and Obelix enter. In 1992, Disney's animated film Aladdin would feature a similar-shaped 'Cave of Wonders' which again is formed like a fierce monster with the entrance through a mouth that closes when Aladdin is inside.

  8. Obtain permit A38 from the Place That Sends You Mad

    This is quite an adult task and a comment on the joys of red tape. Douglas Adams would later create a text adventure game, Bureaucracy, with a similar mission – to get a bank to acknowledge a change of address.

  9. Cross the abyss on an invisible wire

    Caius Tiddlus, the independent referee who sees that Asterix and Obelix complete the tasks, informs them of this task with the words, You have to cross this canyon walking across that invisible thread that you do not see there. Despite this, Asterix and Obelix cheat! After walking halfway across the invisible rope they decide instead to jump into the river at the bottom of the canyon and attack some sacred crocodiles. Although they do get to the other side, they have not actually fulfilled the exact requirements of the task they were set.

  10. Climb to the top to answer the Old Man of the Mountain's riddle

    This is an inspired spoof of adverts. Having to answer a riddle is an old part of mythology, dating back at least to Oedipus answering the riddle of the sphinx, and is also mocked in a sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

  11. Spend a night on a haunted plain

    This plain appears to be just outside Rome, and is haunted by the ghosts of Roman soldiers.

    Roman armies were not allowed within the immediate vicinity of Rome, although in and around the time of Asterix, two generals had broken that rule. Julius Cæsar himself did so in 49 BC, by leading his troops across the Rubicon at the start of the Roman Civil War between himself and Pompey. The other general, Sulla, led his troops to Rome in 87 BC and 83 BC – in 82 BC the battle of the Colline Gate took place just outside Rome. This is the most likely inspiration for the Roman army massacred because of the greed and madness of men outside Rome's city walls.

    Roman soldiers are shown wearing helmets with cheek guards that were used after the Gallic invasion – in reality in 53 BC, the Romans would have been still wearing bronze helmets, known as 'Coolus type'. It was only after they saw the superiority of the Gauls' helmets under Vercingetorix that the recognised Roman helmet, known as 'Gallic type', was adopted.

  12. Survive the Circus

    After unaccountably falling asleep in the middle of the haunted battlefield and waking up in the middle of Rome, the final task is for Asterix and all the Gauls to survive the gladiators and wild beasts in the circus. After drinking the magic potion, the circus quickly transforms from a bloodthirsty spectacle to the child-friendly, entertaining extravaganza and animal show that we know today.

Differences Between This and Other Films

There are several differences between this and other Asterix animated films. Firstly, the Romans have no knowledge of the magic potion. Cleopatra seems much shorter than in Asterix and Cleopatra and Mrs Geriatrix is a brunette, not a blonde. Curiously, Asterix and Obelix get to Rome very quickly – only taking one day and one night's sleep to arrive, and despite leaving much later than Asterix and Obelix, the remaining villagers seem to arrive at almost exactly the same time. Asterix learns about the circus in this film but does not seem acquainted with it in the next animated film, Asterix Versus Cæsar.

This has led some to conclude that this film should not be considered part of the Asterix canon, especially as it contains more magical elements such as ghosts, Roman gods, talking skulls etc. However, as the Asterix series has, at its heart, a magic potion, and the books contain flying carpets, aliens and Atlantis these hardly seem a deviation from standard Asterix fare. Another possibility is that this film is set after all other Asterix animations – is it meant to be Asterix's last adventure?

Another theory is that perhaps, after the events of the film, Julius Cæsar, discovering that the Gauls did not complete the ninth task, challenged the result. Thus, the contest was declared null and void, resulting in resuming the stalemate whereby the Romans occupy almost all of Gaul except for the village occupied by Asterix et al.

Roman gods

In The Twelve Tasks of Asterix the central plot point is whether or not the Gauls are gods. Not only do the Roman gods briefly appear, complete with a Brigitte Bardot lookalike Venus, but there are scenes in which the Roman Senate debates whether the Gauls are gods. This is a surprisingly historically accurate portrayal of Roman belief. For Romans, public religion was no different to foreign policy, city governance or any other bureaucratic department. All important religious decisions were made by the Senate, not a separate priesthood. This included which cults to establish, what religious rituals to create and who to declare as a god. Although a priesthood did exist in a minority of cults, those who belonged to them were themselves senators and made decisions as senators, not as high priests. There were, of course, some exceptions to the rule, most famously the Vestal Virgins   – these, however, were usually related to Roman senators.

Worship of gods was not based on belief, merely the performance of rituals. Although there were several conflicting myths regarding the gods, no one was expected to necessarily believe any of them. The Roman historian Suetonius, private secretary to Emperor Hadrian, wrote The Twelve Cæsars1, about the life of Julius Cæsar and the first eleven Roman Emperors, in around 120 AD. In it he states that the first Emperor, Augustus, assumed the office of chief priest, and also records which of the first eleven Emperors had been declared gods by the senate: Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian2 and Titus.

Suetonius wrote how Julius Cæsar himself was declared a god on his death, with the words:

[Julius Cæsar] was fifty-five years old when he died, and his immediate deification, formally decreed, was more than a mere official decree since it reflected public conviction; if only because, on the first day of the Games given by his successor Augustus in honour of this apotheosis, a comet appeared about an hour before sunset and shone for seven days running. This was held to be Cæsar's soul, elevated to Heaven; hence the star, now placed above the forehead of his divine image.

So in truth, it was Julius Cæsar, and not the Gauls, who was declared a god.

Historical Perspective

Perhaps some of the inspiration for this story came from the Roman historian Livy, who lived between 59 BC and 17 AD, and was therefore alive during the time that The Twelve Tasks of Asterix is set in. He wrote how, according to Roman legend, in 390 BC the Gauls under Brennus destroyed the Roman Army and besieged Rome for six months, all because the Romans had executed one of their ambassadors. Roman historian Plutarch, writing in the late 1st Century AD, also describes Brennus's incursion into Italy:

contrary to expectation, they did no injury as they passed, nor took anything from the fields; and as they went by any city, cried out that they were going to Rome; that the Romans only were their enemies, and that they took all others for their friends.

This attitude is one that would later be adopted by the fictional characters of Asterix and Obelix, who went straight to Rome without causing any problems on the way.

The film ends with Julius Cæsar living with Cleopatra just outside Rome. Historically, Cleopatra did indeed move to Rome, with Julius Cæsar's illegitimate son 'Cæsarion' Ptolemy Cæsar, staying in a villa outside Rome's walls. She lived as Cæsar's regal mistress in Rome until he was assassinated on 14 March, 44 BC.

Review

The film begins in an amusing fashion, with silhouettes putting up their hands and asking to be introduced to the main characters. For the first time in an animated Asterix film, some of the other villagers are introduced, including Impedimenta, Fulliautomatix, Unhygienix and Mr and Mrs Geriatrix. Getafix is again seen living in and brewing his magic potion within a house and not a cave, and for the second time Obelix's first appearance coincides with him telling Asterix that he wants to train Dogmatix to fetch menhirs.

Throughout the film there are delightful moments that may be missed on a first viewing. For instance, in Vitalstatistix's hut, he has a tick-tocking hourglass. Brutus is seen in the Roman Senate playing with a knife and, after an off-screen 'Ouch!', is next seen with a bandaged finger.

One of the last lines in the film is 'this is only a cartoon film - anything goes' and, during the 78 minutes on screen, the film tries to live up to this. Anything does go in a film determined to keep fresh and imaginative, with clarinet-playing squirrels, an Underground train going through Alesia station3 and when a helmet lands on a chicken, the chicken lays a variety of different shaped eggs, including one shaped like Donald Duck.

The English voice cast for this film, who are sadly uncredited, are superb, one of the finest voice casts assembled for an Asterix film. The background music, too, is the finest of any Asterix film, with a catchy, bouncy tune that suits the humorous tone of the film perfectly, unlike the background music in Asterix The Gaul and, to a lesser extent, Asterix and Cleopatra, which was at times too intrusive.

When Asterix drinks his magic potion, the effect is unlike any previously seen. He 'zaps' with lightning and energy bubbles, flashes with light, levitates and puffs out his chest.

Since Mannekenpix is clearly Belgian, it is inevitable that he serves chips with the meal, even though Obelix's eating competition takes place in 50 BC and Sir Walter Raleigh did not introduce the potato to the Old World from the Americas until the 16th Century. Perhaps since Mannekenpix is the chef of the gods, he uses magical means to acquire foods from distant continents. Quite why the gods, who we are told by the chief priestess on the Island of Pleasure eat only ambrosia and nectar, need a chef who stocks elephants, caviar, camels and all the other courses is never explained within the film.

Novelisation

The Twelve Tasks of Asterix was novelised after the release of the film, and was originally released as the twenty-first book of the Asterix series. Instead of the usual comic format, the book contains text describing the adventures, along with colour pictures on all pages.

Unlike later novelisations, the pictures on the pages are not cels from the film, but are instead new drawings closely based on the film. There are differences, however, especially in the colours. For instance, instead of appearing ghostly, see-through and spectral as he does in the film, the ghost of the centurion seems solid and green. In the film, the priestesses on the Island of Pleasure are all identical with the sole exception of the chief priestess. In the novelisation, however, they all have different hair colour, skin tones, hair styles and coloured clothes and hair bands. Mannekenpix is referred to as 'Calorifix' in the novelisation, and the list of food he prepares is slightly different, with geese instead of turkeys and no mention of caviar, the slice of toast or the olive-stuffed elephant.

The story was also divided into a series of 12 books, one for each of the 12 tasks.

Influences on Later Films

  • This is the first Asterix film in which the Roman legionaries form various amusing formations. In this case, the ghostly legionaries form a Triangle, followed by the card shapes of a Heart, Diamond, Spade and Club. Roman soldiers would later form amusing shapes in Asterix in Britain and Asterix Conquers America.

  • This is the first appearance in an Asterix animated film of the Flavian Amphitheatre, commonly known as the Colosseum. It is shown as a three-storey circular building with 44 arches and 44 statues crowning the columns between arches. When the Colosseum is next seen, in Asterix Versus Cæsar, it has a different appearance: it is four storeys high, without the top layer of arches and with only 40 statues. The detail on the Colosseum is lacking also, and visually it is much rougher in appearance4.

  • Also making their first appearance in an Asterix film are America and the Native Americans. These would be seen again in Asterix Conquers America.

  • This is the first Asterix animated film with a magician other than Getafix, in the form of Iris the Egyptian, who tries to hypnotise Asterix into thinking he is a wild boar. In Asterix Conquers America, Obelix would be drugged into thinking that he is an animal.

  • This is the first film in which a female statue, similar to the Venus de Milo, has its arms broken – in this case in the House That Sends You Mad. Female statue arms would later be broken off in Asterix in Britain. And of course, Obelix broke the Sphinx's nose in Asterix and Cleopatra.

  • This is the first film to be novelised. Later novelisations would be made of Asterix Versus Cæsar, Asterix and the Big Fight, Asterix Conquers America and Asterix and the Vikings.

Legacy of The Twelve Tasks of Asterix

Sadly, shortly after Goscinny and Uderzo achieved their ambition of creating and controlling their own feature film with the release of The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, René Goscinny died in 1977, at the age of 51, during a cardiac stress test. Studios Idéfix was dissolved and, after his death, no new animated Asterix film would be made which was not at least partly based on an existing comic adventure.

1This was translated into English by Robert Graves, the Great War poet who later wrote I, Claudius and Claudius the God.2This was much to Vespasian's bemusement; his last words are reported to be 'Oh dear, I think I'm turning into a god.'3Alesia was the town where the Gaulish leader Vercingetorix surrendered to Julius Cæsar to prevent his people dying from starvation.4Of course, the presence of the Colosseum in Asterix films is not strictly correct. Asterix is set in 50 BC. The Colosseum, originally known as the Amphitheatrum Flavaium, was built in the reign of the Emperor Vespasian 130 years later. However, it does greatly add to the Roman atmosphere.

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