Before Cannes 2022, I had never heard of Little Nicholas (Le petit Nicolas), a star of comic strips and graphic novels hugely popular internationally, mainly in his homeland of France. That is why an animated work like Little Nicholas: Happy As Can Be is so appreciated: it not only provides a complete and entertaining introduction to the character but is also a lovely tribute to his story and creators.
Starting in 1955 with the creation of Nicholas by writer René Goscinny and artist Jean-Jacques Sempé, the film jumps between timelines and worlds to recount, always with creativity and a sweet tone, the artistic and narrative elements surrounding the character, as well as the life experiences of their creators. To do this, the directing duo of Amandine Fredon and Benjamin Massoubre were supported by the scriptwriting work of Anne Goscinny, René’s daughter, as well as Michel Fessler, screenwriter of “March of the Penguins”.
Little Nicholas: Happy As Can Be deftly intersects the real lives of Sempé and Goscinny with the fictional life of Nicholas. On the one hand, we learn about the friendship between the artists, as well as their artistic process to capture their ideas on paper, and on the other, we have the fun adventures of Nicholas with his family and friends, which ranges from indigestion caused by excessive Grandma love to playing hooky
The film goes a step further when Nicholas steps out of the pages to talk with his creators, giving rise to an exploration of their lives that involve complicated childhoods, the inspiring figure of a grandfather, migration to Argentina, and the terror of the Holocaust. All of this provides an understanding of the inspirations, drawn from their imperfect lives, that nurtured and gave “Le Petit Nicolas” its own identity to transcend pop culture. And despite the heaviness of some themes, Fredon and Massoubre tackle them with a lighthearted tone without the need to simplify the intellectual level of the film.
Each “world” has its own visual style. Nicholas’s resembles his original illustrations; it features unfinished watercolor strokes and a big white vignette. Meanwhile, the real-world visual takes inspiration from Sempé’s illustrations for the New Yorker; here, the strokes are well defined, and more complex cinematographic techniques are used in the animation. Although the vignette of the former is quite annoying, both worlds are a delight for the pupil.
In addition to Anne Goscinny helping tell her father’s story, Jean-Jacques Sampé himself participated in the animation tests, thus giving the film a seal of quality; and his passion for music is embedded in the story through a memorable sequence using “Que’est-ce qu’on attend pour être heureux?” by Ray Ventura. And to complement the vintage aesthetic and tone of the story, Ludovic Bource (The Artist) delivers a beautiful and vivid original score.
Although some of Nicholas’s adventures last too long, the love towards the character, creators, and legacy is palpable in Little Nicholas: Happy As Can Be, a feel-good movie with beautiful animation and an air of nostalgia that, always bears an optimistic and playful smile, addresses issues such as resilience, artistic struggles, and art as a tool for relief. It is an introduction, a tribute, and a celebration that children and adults alike can enjoy.
Little Nicholas: Happy As Can Be (Le petit Nicolas: Qu’est-ce qu’on attend pour être heureux?) was screened at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival as part of the Special Screenings program.