Imagine The Three Stooges cast in a Monty Python movie with a Marvel budget.
That’s “Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom,” a pricey, large-scale, seriously-silly slapstick farce from our wine-swilling/snail-eating friends across the pond. It’s utterly ahistorical and pretty danged dumb, start to finish. But you don’t have to wait long between laughs or at least grins and chuckles.
Based on the Franco-Belgian comic series that’s been around since the ’50s, this 15th film featuring the brawling goofball Gauls was directed by and stars Guillaume Canet — recently seen in “Sink or Swim” in this hemisphere — as skinny Asterix, with his frequent co-star Gilles Lellouche (“Tell No One,” “Sink or Swim,” etc) wearing the fat pants as the dim, good-natured brute Obelix.
The premise of these tales is that even during the first Occupation of France (by the ancient Romans), there were plucky Gauls clinging to their French-ness, quipping and punning and slapping around the hapless Centurians for kicks and giggles.
This adventure sees our intrepid heroes summoned from their not-to-be-trifled-with fortified village to save the mother of fleeing Chinese Princess Sa-See (Julie Chen).
She and her bodyguard, Ka-Ra-Tay (Leanna Chea) have been delivered to the Gauls by a fake Gallic trader (Jonathan Cohen) named Bankruptix.
Some rival Chinese king named Deng Tsin Qin (Bun-hay Mean) is trying to take over and is holding the empress hostage. So Chief Vitalstatistix (Jerome Commandeur) is convinced that there’s nothing for it but to send Asterix & Obelix “as usual” to sort this mess out.
There’s always been this magic potion that the wizard GetaFix (Pierre Richard) whipped-up which Obelix fell into (seen in a flashback) that makes Gauls strong and brave. As long as Asterix takes along a flask, they’ll be fine.
Pirates? No problem. Julius Caesar (Vincent Cassel) and his legions? Pass the bottle.
Because Cleopatra (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard) has dumped “Hail me” Caesar and made him restless to prove he’s famous and unbeatable throughout the world. He’s sucked into “Middle Kingdom” intrigues, and once again facing off with Asterix & You-Know-Who.
The movies and the comics they’re based on have a self-mocking Franco-centric humor, much of it based on the haughty French looking down on everybody, with every other culture depicted according to French stereotypes. It’s not quite offensive enough to offend, or be funny.
With every name a pun, you’ve still got to say “Ka-Ra-TAY” or “Deng Tsin Qin” aloud to get the jokes. Not that you need to mouthe “Get a Fix” aloud to pick up on what’s going on there. Caesar is accompanied by his biographer, named “Biopix.” Tee hee.
Running gags throughout the series are the tone-deaf herald/bard who “sings” the news (one of many Python touches) and the ever-more-sophisticated nature of the lightning-quick slapstick effects that allow Obelix and even Asterix to punch foes “to the Moon,” almost literally.
Any comedy built on the imperious and serious Cotillard huffing “I should have LISTENED to MUMMY!” as Cleopatra (in French, subtitled, or dubbed into English) is going to pretty childish.
And a nice scattering of laughs, decent wirework martial arts brawls (with pirates, among others), a grand scale battle scene, voice-over narration explaining “this is a flashback” doesn’t change that.
Most of the props look plastic, especially the Halloween costume helmets worn by our heroes, the scenic vistas are digital and nothing here will impress anyone who’s seen a real Chinese epic.
Still, if your kids are into slapstick and you haven’t outgrown the Stooges, this nonsense could be just the ticket.
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Gilles Lellouche, Leanna Chea, Julie Chen, Bun-hay Mean,
José Garcia, Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel.
Credits: Directed by Guillaume Canet, scripted by A Pathe release on Netflix.
Running time: 1:52