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.