One of this year’s under-the-radar contenders for Best Animated Feature is a sweet little French film called Little Nicholas. It centers on the protagonist best known for his many appearances in French comics, as well as his creators, René Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempé. While Goscinny died almost half a century ago, Sempé lived until just a few days shy of his 90th birthday this past August. Little Nicholas is a delightful and insightful work of animation that sheds just as much light on the backgrounds of the illustrators as their plucky hand-drawn star…
The full title of this 82-minute film is Little Nicholas – Happy as Can Be, which speaks primarily to the optimistic nature of Nicholas, a boy who really doesn’t know all that much about life and usually greets new information with an exclamation of “C’est chouette,” which translates to “That’s great!” or “That’s nice!” Certain things don’t excite him, like the introduction into his storyline of a girl, since he has no interest in girls in general, but he quickly warms to the idea and then begins imagining his wedding to someone he didn’t even want to meet just a short time earlier.
It’s fun to see how Nicholas is presented, appearing as his creator sits down to draw his latest adventure and eagerly asking questions about the things he doesn’t yet know. He wants to learn about the world and is also very ready to interrogate the artist about his motivations for why he wants Nicholas to be in a certain situation or to go through a particular experience. In moments like those, the opportunity presents itself to discuss mature content like the rise of Nazism in France, something that is explained to Nicholas as a subject about which it’s difficult to tell a child.
Watching Nicholas bounce around the typewriter keys and express glee at the latest new bit of information he has been told is very enjoyable, almost more than seeing him return to his friendly comic strip pages where his parents struggle to keep him in line and he finds himself all too easily engaged in distraction when he should be focused on studying at school. But it’s all worthwhile, and it feels like a natural way to bring Nicholas alive, something that’s been done a few times with three live-action films and an animated TV series all produced in France within the past fifteen years.
While the profile of Little Nicholas may not be all that high (it had an Oscar-qualifying run earlier this month and will be released in the USsometime next year), it does feel like the kind of foreign animation gem that could well crack the Oscar race like the last nominee out of France, I Lost My Body. Visually, its 2D animation is expressive and beautiful, with the voices of Alain Chabat and Laurent Lafitte as the illustrators and Simon Faliu as Nicholas, and music from Ludovic Bource (The Artist). Those who grew up reading the character will likely have the added pleasure of recognizing traits and storylines from the many years in which he has been in circulation. No such context is necessary to enjoy this film, however, and first-timers to Nicholas will feel very much at home. B+