Ancient Rome is at the height of its power, and Julius Caesar (Gottfried John) is proud of his latest achievement: the conquering of Gaul. What his second-in-command Lucius Detritus (Roberto Benigni) has not told him, however, is that one tiny village in the vicinity is still holding out against the invaders. How can this be? It's because they have a secret weapon in the magic potion concocted by their resident druid, Getafix (Claude Piéplu) which gives the imbiber super strength, and nobody recognises these properties more than firm friends Asterix (Christian Clavier) and Obelix (Gérard Depardieu)...
Asterix comic books have been a huge success across the globe for decades, and had previously been made into animated films, but in the late nineties it was decided to create a live action version of the popular tales. Asterix et Obelix contre Cesar was the most expensive movie ever made in France, but it paid back its production by being one of that country's biggest hits, at least on the Continent. In Britain it was settled that a subtitled version would not be palatable so Monty Python member Terry Jones looked after the English language dubbing, although many felt he missed the wit of the original.
You can assuredly see where the cash has gone, as no expense has been spared to translate the look of the comics to the big screen. On the other hand, you've never seen so many unconvincing wigs, beards and moustaches, all implemented to render the cast looking more like their counterparts from the page, so Depardieu gets his requisite pigtails and tache without you ever mistaking him for the cartoon equivalent. That said, there could be few actors better cast, and he brings out the character's good natured qualities without making him appear to be a thug, in spite of his love of violence.
The storyline from veteran director Claude Zidi draws from various originals without leaning too heavily on any of them, so there's a bit of Asterix the Gaul here, a bit of Asterix and the Soothsayer there, but he might have been better sticking with one book. As it is, he adds broad slapstick to the mix without much visual wit, so while our heroes still biff the Romans, sending them flying into the air, he also contributes a fish-slapping fight between the villagers to start his film off. While lovingly recreated, there's an inauthentic mood to both the story and the humour.
Of course, purists would tell you to stick with the René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo classics, and let the rest of us get on with enjoying the novelty of seeing the characters played by real actors. The plot has Detritus scheming to be rid of Caesar, with a spot of tax robbery thrown in for good measure when the villagers come into possession of some government funds, all an excuse for them and the Romans to go head to head. This leads to Asterix being deliberately captured, part of his plan, but also Caesar imprisoned along with Getafix, who is forced to boil up a cauldron of magic potion for Detritus. In addition, Obelix falls in love with Laetitia Casta, Dogmatix saves the day and Cacophonix is tied up and gagged to prevent him singing. And naturally, it all ends in a big, moonlight feast, so there are some things Zidi does right. Music by Jean-Jacques Goldman and Roland Romanelli.