Le petit Nicolas

Film reps the first screen adaptation of a popular series of French children's books from the '60s.

With: Valerie Lemercier, Kad Merad, Sandrine Kiberlain, Francois-Xavier Demaison, Maxime Godart, Vincent Claude, Charles Vaillant, Victor Carles, Benjamin Averty, Germain Petit Damico.

Although it sounds like a possible title for a Sarkozy biopic, “Le petit Nicolas” actually reps the first screen adaptation of a popular series of French children’s books from the ’60s. Unfortunately, while the original tales of the titular, mischievous 7-year-old were enriched by author Rene Goscinny’s witticisms and illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempe’s energetic sketches, helmer Laurent Tirard’s live-action version is just the opposite: heavy-handed, overtly cute and rarely funny despite an onslaught of expensive visual gags. This hefty Franco-Belge co-production should score with homeland families and fans; overseas coin will be more petit than grand.

The appeal of the original books by Goscinny (who also created the “Asterix” comicbooks) and New Yorker artist Sempe was that, not unlike “The Simpsons,” they always functioned on two levels: Kids could enjoy the pranks of Nicolas and his buds, while parents could appreciate the authors’ keen insights into the hypocrisy of adults and the naively cruel way in which children tend to treat one another.

The illustrated stories — first published in the French and Belgian press and then assembled into several volumes in the early ’60s — were also distinguished by their simplicity, which is far from the case here. Instead, writer-director Tirard (“Moliere”) and co-scribes Gregoire Vigneron (“Changing Sides”) and Alain Chabat (“The Science of Sleep”) try to pack in as many yarns and vignettes as possible, relying on techniques (especially cutaways and a whimsical voiceover) from the Jean-Pierre Jeunet filmmaking handbook to solder it all together.

Major plotline focuses on young Nicolas (Maxime Godart, adorable but expressionless), who fears that his wage-slave dad (Kad Merad, “Welcome to the Sticks”) and manic housewife mom (Valerie Lemercier, “Avenue Montaigne”) are going to have a second child. He enlists his coterie of school chums — including gluttonous Alceste (Vincent Claude), bossy Rufus (Germain Petit Damico) and clueless Clotaire (Victor Carles) — to raise funds and hire a contract killer to do away with the eventual newborn.

The catch is that there’s no new baby on the way, and this, like a handful of other quid pro quos scattered throughout, is the basis of most of the humor. None of it is very amusing, save for an extended dinner sequence in which Lemercier and Merad reveal how well they can pull off a joke when it’s not overheated from the start.

The clan of boys, and especially Nicolas himself, are too impeccably coiffed, dressed and mannered to resemble the ruffians depicted in Sempe’s drawings, or anything like real kids at all. Along with Francoise Dupertuis’ flamboyant sets and tidy lensing by Denis Rouden (“MR 73”), the result is a look of squeaky-clean postwar nostalgia, closer to Christophe Barratier’s “The Chorus” than to Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” which was set around the same time period.

Le petit Nicolas


Production: A Wild Bunch Distribution (in France) release of a Fidelite Films, IMAV, Wild Bunch, M6 Films, Mandarin Films (France)/Scope Pictures (Belgium) production, with participation of Orange Cinema Series, M6, la Region Wallonne. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier. Directed by Laurent Tirard. Screenplay, Tirard, Gregoire Vigneron, Alain Chabat, based on the "Le petit Nicolas" books by Rene Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempe.

Crew: Camera (color), Denis Rouden; editor, Valerie Deseine; music, Klaus Badelt; production designer, Francoise Dupertuis; costume designer, Pierre-Jean Larroque; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Ricardo Castro, Paul Heymans, Thomas Gauder; assistant director, Alan Corno; casting, Agathe Hassenforder, Gerard Moulevrier. Reviewed at UGC Cine Cite Les Halles 10, Oct 1, 2009. (In Rome Film Festival -- Alice in the City.) Running time: 91 MIN.

With: With: Valerie Lemercier, Kad Merad, Sandrine Kiberlain, Francois-Xavier Demaison, Maxime Godart, Vincent Claude, Charles Vaillant, Victor Carles, Benjamin Averty, Germain Petit Damico.

More Film

  • My Zoe

    'My Zoe': Film Review

    There are two films in Julie Delpy’s ambitious, sharply-made but unbalanced “My Zoe.” There’s the scabrous relationship melodrama, about bitter exes sharing custody of a beloved child, which contains the story’s most potent emotions. And there’s the sci-fi-inflected ethical-dilemma grief movie, which houses its most provocative ideas. Both have much to recommend them, not least [...]

  • Richard Jewell

    The Big Lie of 'Richard Jewell' (Column)

    For a man who was so enraged at the administration of Barack Obama that he spent his 2012 Republican Convention speech lecturing an empty chair, Clint Eastwood has made a number of conventional, level-headed — one might even say liberal — political dramas. Films like “Invictus” and “J. Edgar” and “Midnight in the Garden of [...]

  • Oscar Isaac Star Wars The Rise

    Oscar Isaac Has Never Felt Like a 'Star Wars' Insider

    Unlike his “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” co-stars Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, Oscar Isaac had already established a long and acclaimed acting career before J.J. Abrams cast him as ace X-wing pilot Poe Dameron in 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” including standout roles in 2006’s “The Nativity Story” and 2011’s “Drive,” and [...]

  • Les Arcs to Showcase New Projects

    Les Arcs to Showcase New Projects by Jonas Alexander Arnby, Agnieszka Smoczyńska

    Denmark’s Jonas Alexander Arnby, France’s Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, and Poland’s Agnieszka Smoczyńska are among up-and-coming directors from across Europe whose latest projects will be presented at the 11th Coproduction Village of Les Arcs Film Festival. This edition of Les Arcs Coproduction Village will showcase a total of 22 European projects spanning 19 countries. [...]

  • Chez Jolie Coiffure

    'Chez Jolie Coiffure': Film Review

    Shortly before the credits roll on “Chez Jolie Coiffure,” a customer in the eponymous hair salon asks her stylist, Sabine, if she has any plans to go home this year. Out of context, this sounds like the kind of standard, empty small talk one often makes while having one’s hair cut: what good movies you’ve [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content