Every time someone takes a comic book character that the world adores and decides to make an animated film, there is a risk that they will not do justice to the original design. “The Adventures of Tintin” immediately comes to mind, as Spielberg and company made the bold choice to exchange the attractive clean designs of the artist Hergé with terrifying zombies to capture the performance. Or the disappointing restart of the Adams Family in 2019, which effectively turned Charles Adams’ sinister sketches into benign, generic balloon-looking animals.
This is a problem that people at ON Entertainment take seriously. They are the ones who translated Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince on screen, making a mistake by overdoing the CG equivalent in this case. Now the same studio is done right by Jean-Jacques Sempe and Petit Nicolas by Rene Goshini – or Little Nicholas for English-speakers, who are almost certainly less familiar with the source material (essentially France’s response to Dennis the Threat) and probably not as picky when it comes to treating the character.
The thing is, you don’t even have to know Sempe and Goshini’s work to understand what “Love Nicholas: Happy as Happy as You Can” is. Every shot of the co-directors Amandine Freden and Benjamin Masubre, caused by nostalgia that won Annecy an adaptation, pays tribute to their work – so much so that Little Nicholas is not even the protagonist of the film. They are Sempe and Goshini.
Here is a film co-written by Goshini’s daughter Anne about a friendship between two artists that gave rise to one of the most successful children’s phenomena in France: a carefree middle-class child (voiced by Simon Faliou) who loves airplanes, hates girls and makes a mess of virtually any situation. Six years older than Sempe (played by Laurent Lafitte), Goshini (Alain Shabbat) is perhaps better known for the creation of Asterix. (As a wink to his fans, a figure of the Gallic warrior and great friend Obelix sits at his desk in the film.) Both men moved to Paris, striving to be illustrators. Sempe joins the army at 17, knowing it will take him to the capital. Goshini first spent several years in New York, where he worked with Mad cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman, but achieved his greatest success in Paris as a writer.
If you want to learn their story – how they met and where the ideas for Little Nicholas’ little universe came from – then “Little Nicholas” is for you. If you expect a clear adaptation of one or more of his adventures (à la “Little Rascals” from 2009 – as a feature of live action), then get ready for a lot of unnecessary luggage and foreign history. It helps that the sequences of Sempe and Goshini are set in a beautiful past version of Paris – one that looks more like Ludwig Bemelmans’s books “Madeline” than Sempe’s own illustrations, although the aim was obviously to portray the artists in almost the same style as their creation.
The problem with the biographical focus is that it is practically devoid of drama or particularly interesting details. Sempe’s publisher wanted him to publish a recurring weekly comic, so he turned to his trusted friend Goshini to write the stories. It’s fun to see them make trial and error with alternative versions of Nicholas’ parents, including a drawing of a bourgeois family in which Dad is a professor of classical music and Mom plays the harp before moving on to perhaps the most mediocre possible. answer. But it seems to be the key to Nicholas being connected. The cartoons immediately became popular and the couple expanded the world around them.
Adding more characters makes the animated vignettes extrapolated from the books more interesting. Sempe’s images were so sweet, only the sight of Little Nicholas walking in puddles could be enough to make him laugh. But his best drawings were more complex, with a group of characters arguing in Nicholas’ front yard, cutting themselves in class, or behaving badly on the beach. As if taking a page from Looney Tunes’ metaclassic “Duck Amuck” (the one where Duffy fights the cartoonist’s pencil), the film pretends to sketch such places in real time, while the gentle effect of watercolor spreading brings the scene to life.
This is a fascinating technique that clearly suggests what Little Nicholas fans have been doing all these years: when readers see Sempe’s scribble, they instantly imagine the character in action. Little Nicholas was essentially a dynamic character – closer to Bill Waterson’s spastic Calvin than Charles M. Schultz’s sedentary Charlie Brown, who moved around in a limited number of poses – so there’s something intuitive about the simple style of a flipbook. watch him walk around the screen. The film even corresponds to the characteristic device in which the imagination of the characters collides through competing thought bubbles.
During the film of Freden and Masubre, we see the title child make friends, find girls, play the hook and go to summer camp – all classic moments from the canon of Little Nicholas. What we don’t see are almost enough dead ends or rough drafts for a film that is so focused on the behind-the-scenes process. For Sempe and Goshini (whose fame leads to New Yorker covers and other commissions along the way) it went smoothly until the latter’s death, making Sempe very sad.
A few years ago, before Spielberg dealt with Tintin, Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael (“Mr. Nobody”) presented a Hergé project that became super creative as it blurred the line between creator and creation. “Little Nicholas: Happy as You Can” is like a tame version of this idea: a well-mannered film about a child who always creates problems.