Charming animation exploring the creation and evolution of fictional French schoolboy Little Nicholas

Little Nicholas Happy As Can Be

Source: ONYX Films - Bidibul Productions

‘Little Nicholas Happy As Can Be’

Dirs: Amandine Fredon, Benjamin Massoubre. France/Luxembourg. 2022. 86 mins

Little Nicholas has gone a long way in French popular culture. The mischievous schoolboy created by writer René Goscinny and animator Jean-Jacques Sempé has been the star of comic strips and graphic novels, and a stalwart of live-action films aimed at family audiences. Little Nicholas – Happy As Can Be offers an exuberant animated salute to the character and his creators. Told with warm affection and wild invention, it successfully combines biopic, origin story and Little Nicholas adventures into an irresistibly warmhearted delight. Screenings at Cannes and Annecy precede a French theatrical release in October that should attract young and old alike.

A sweet, charming, and very entertaining film

Co-written by Goscinny’s daughter Anne, Little Nicholas - Happy As Can Be begins in 1955 as her father René (voiced by Alain Chabat) and animator Jean-Jacques Sempé (Laurent Lafitte) begin to develop the character of ordinary Parisian boy Little Nicholas for a Sunday newspaper supplement. We see the give and take in their friendly collaboration as they build the world of Nicholas, his family and school friends. Black-and-white sketches take shape and grow before our eyes, bursting into colour and becoming beautiful, richly detailed animated scenes of carefree school days and the ordinary landmarks of family life, such as the proud acquisition of a new television. A mistake can be easily erased or a suggestion abandoned as a better idea presents itself.

Eventually, Little Nicholas (Simon Faliu) steps out of the page and starts to converse with his creators. His innocent questions trigger fond memories and become the catalyst for them to reveal aspects of their own lives. We learn that Jean-Jacques wanted to be a jazz musician and play the piano like his idol Duke Ellington. We discover that René and his family moved to Buenos Aires when he was two and remained there until his father’s death sixteen years later. France became a “mysterious, exotic country” when they visited on holiday. 

The film unfolds at a cracking pace, mirroring the boisterous, fizzing energy of a curious young mind. Ludovic Bource’s jaunty jolly score propels everything along, finding a musical style for every mood. Jean-Jacques’s wide-eyed arrival in Paris plays like a dynamic Gene Kelly song’n’dance number, there is a tango for René’s time in Argentina, a brassy exuberance to match the sense of expectation when René arrives in New York for the first time.

Little Nicholas effectively folds together a biography of Goscinny and Sempé with a sense of the love and care they put into the 222 Little Nicholas stories they created that include meeting the Nanna who spoils him rotten, a day bunking off school with best pal Alceste, a summer by the seaside at Camp Bleu and the greatest challenge of all for a young boy as he encounters the terrifying mysteries of creatures called girls.

Made under artistic director Fursy Teyssier with Juliette Laurent listed at the top of a vast army of animators, Little Nicholas has some of the style of Sylvain Chomet. It is a film that reveals its love of animation throughout. René has an Asterix ornament on his desk. There is a mention of Lucky Luke’s Belgian creator Morris and a nod to René’s time with Mad Magazine’s Harvey Kurtzman.

There is some counterpoint to the film’s sunny nature as Little Nicholas’s questions also prompt recollections of darker times; Jean-Jacques’s far from happy childhood or those family members René lost during the Nazi occupation. We are constantly told that the late René took his inspiration from daydreams and close observation of the world around him. The film also makes us aware of how much the duo were creating an innocent, idealised childhood and warm, loving family unit in response to the imperfections of the reality they had endured. That insight adds an extra dimension to what is a sweet, charming and very entertaining film. 

Production companies: ON Classics, Bidibul Productions, Align

International sales: Charades

Producers: Aton Soumache, Lilian Eche, Cedric Pilot, Christel Henon

Screenplay: Anne Goscinny, Michel Fessler based on ’Le Petit Nicolas’ by Jean-Jacques Sempe and Rene Goscinny

Music: Ludovic Bource

Main voice cast: Alain Chabat, Laurent Lafitte, Simon Faliu