Every time someone takes a comic book character the world adores and decides to make an animated movie, there’s a risk they won’t do justice to the original designs. “The Adventures of Tintin” comes immediately to mind, since Spielberg and company made the bold choice of swapping artist Hergé’s appealing clean-line designs with appalling performance-capture zombies. Or 2019’s disappointing “The Addams Family” reboot, which effectively turned Charles Addams’ macabre sketches into benign, generic-looking balloon animals.
It’s a problem the folks at ON Entertainment take seriously. They’re the ones who translated Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” to the screen, erring on the side of overdoing the CG equivalent in that case. Now, the same studio has done right by Jean-Jacques Sempé and René Goscinny’s Petit Nicolas — or Little Nicholas to English speakers, who are almost certainly less familiar with the source material (essentially France’s answer to Dennis the Menace) and probably not as picky when it comes to how the character is treated.
The thing is, you don’t even have to know Sempé and Goscinny’s work to recognize what a labor of love “Little Nicholas: Happy as Can Be” happens to be. Every frame of co-directors Amandine Fredon and Benjamin Massoubre’s nostalgia-driven, Annecy-winning adaptation pays homage to their oeuvre — so much so that Little Nicholas isn’t even the movie’s main character. Sempé and Goscinny are.
Here is a movie, co-written by Goscinny’s daughter Anne, about a friendship between two artists that spawned one of France’s most successful kid-lit phenoms: a carefree middle-class kid (voiced by Simon Faliu) who adores planes, detests girls and makes a mess out of practically any situation. Six years older than Sempé (played by Laurent Lafitte), Goscinny (Alain Chabat) is perhaps better known for co-creating Asterix. (As a wink to his fans, a figurine of the Gallic warrior and big buddy Obelix sits on his desk in the film.) Both men moved to Paris aspiring to be illustrators. Sempé joined the army at 17, knowing it would take him to the capital. Goscinny first spent a few years in New York, where he worked alongside Mad magazine cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman, but found the greatest success back in Paris as a writer.
If you want to know their story — how they met and where the ideas for Little Nicholas’ little universe came from — then “Little Nicholas” is for you. If you’re expecting a straightforward adaptation of one or more of his adventures (à la 2009’s “Little Rascals”-like live-action feature), then get ready for a lot of unnecessary baggage and extraneous backstory. It helps that the Sempé and Goscinny sequences are set in a lovely bygone version of Paris — one that looks more like Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline books than Sempé’s own illustrations, though the goal was clearly to render the artists in much the same style as their creation.
The trouble with the biographical focus is that it’s virtually devoid of drama or especially interesting detail. Sempé’s publisher wanted him to deliver a recurring weekly comic, and so he turned to his trusted pal Goscinny to write the stories. It’s amusing to see them trial-and-erroring with alternate versions of Nicholas’ parents, including one drawing of a bourgeois family in which Dad’s a classics professor and Mom plays the harp, before landing on perhaps the most average solution possible. But making Nicholas relatable seems to have been the key. The cartoons were immediately popular, and so the pair expanded the world around him.
The addition of more characters makes the animated vignettes extrapolated from the books more interesting. Sempé’s images were so cute, just the sight of Little Nicholas strolling through puddles could be enough to get a laugh. But his best drawings were more elaborate, featuring a group of characters being rowdy in Nicholas’ front yard, cutting up in class or misbehaving on the beach. As if taking a page from Looney Tunes meta-classic “Duck Amuck” (the one where Daffy does battle with the cartoonist’s pencil), the movie pretends to sketch such locations in real time, while a gentle spreading-watercolor effect brings the scene to life.
It’s a charming technique that neatly suggests what Little Nicholas fans have been doing all these years: When readers see a Sempé doodle, they instantly imagine the character in action. Little Nicholas was an inherently dynamic character — closer to Bill Watterson’s spastic Calvin than Charles M. Schulz’s sedentary Charlie Brown, who moped around in a limited number of poses — so there’s something intuitive about the simple flipbook style of watching him scamper about the screen. The movie even matches the signature device in which characters’ imaginations clash via competing thought bubbles.
Over the course of Fredon and Massoubre’s movie, we see the title kiddo make friends, discover girls, play hooky and go to summer camp — all classic moments in the Little Nicholas canon. What we don’t see are nearly enough dead ends or rough drafts for a movie that’s so focused on the behind-the-scenes process. It’s smooth sailing for Sempé and Goscinny (whose renown leads to New Yorker covers and other commissions along the way) until the latter’s death, which makes Sempé very sad.
Several years ago, before Spielberg had his way with Tintin, Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael (“Mr. Nobody”) pitched a Hergé project that got super-creative as it blurred the lines between creator and creation. “Little Nicholas: Happy as Can Be” is like the tame version of that idea: a well-behaved movie about a kid who was always causing trouble.