Despite a series of stinking reviews in the French press, the first Asterix movie with live actors, including Gerard Depardieu as Obelix, has had a triumphant first two weeks at the box office. In its first week, the movie, Asterix et Obelix Contre Cesar, broke the French attendance record, with 2,718,443 tickets sold. By the end of its second week it had reached 4.3 million, well on the way to the 10 million target set by its producer.
The feisty little cartoon-book Celt and his dim friend are fighting a rearguard action in defence of French - and European - cinematic culture, almost as desperate as the Gaulish resistance to the Romans 2,000 years ago. At pounds 27m, the movie is the most expensive made in France. It carries the hopes of the entire French cinema sector, the only fully functioning such industry still surviving in Europe.
Attendance at French films in France fell below 30 per cent of the total audience for the first time last year, largely because of the success of the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic and several American full-length cartoons.
The French industry was counting on the Asterix movie to reverse this trend and to prove that it was not doomed to become a bit player even in its domestic cinemas.
The film, supported by French, German and Belgian money, with French, German and Italian actors, was viciously received by the French movie critics. They said it was clumsy, too dependent on Hollywood-style, computer-generated special effects and, unkindest cut of all, not very funny. Most adults who have seen the movie tend to agree. Children and adolescents, the main target audiences, do not care.
As the movie's producer, Claude Berri (Jean de Florette) said, the cerebral, slow-moving, sensitively-acted movies praised by French critics tend to vanish at the box office, even in France.He said the panning of Asterix was a good sign. And so it proved.
Asterix et Obelix Contre Cesar now benefits from the French school holidays, and should flourish for at least two more weeks. It has beaten main chief rival for the children's audience, the Disney-distributed A Bug's Life, into a poor second place.