Little Nicholas: Happy as Can Be (2022) Review: We all know that art does not appear out of thin air. It needs some kind of inspiration that the artist can learn from and use in their own work. It may be things you see or consume, places you visit, or past experiences that you lived through. It can be a reimagining of the past, like what Spielberg did with The Fabelmans, or bringing your fantasies to come to life the way Little Nicholas does. When I say this, I mean the wonderful series of children’s books created by the pair of Jean-Jacques Sempé and René Goscinny. Little Nicholas is an affectionate tale about this much-loved character by two affectionate creators.
Directed by Amandine Fredon & Benjamin Massoubre, this new animated film takes us on a delightful journey into how those two minds came up with the scripts and gags for their comics. Just this year, Disney came up with a documentary about the character of Mickey Mouse through a different lens. While it felt to have a self-professed sense of respect for itself, Little Nicholas rather makes us fall in love through an animated style with the story of two men who lived their idea of a perfect childhood through their creation. Instead of being a glossy glorification of the character’s impact, it delves largely into how personal Nicholas was to its creators.
As a result, the final output is sentimental and filled with genuine emotion. Sempé was a down-on-luck cartoonist, and Goscinny was a down-on-luck comic writer. The series of Le Petit Nicolas comics that they created is one of the most well-known series in France. The inception occurred one day while Sempé was scribbling away his ideas when he drew an adorable character of a young boy. Goscinny, his friend at the time, saw the potential in expanding this character further and giving it a life of its own. With a series of spontaneous decisions, they decided to call it Little Nicholas and started painting a picture of what his world looked like.
As aforementioned, they looked through the mood boards of their personal experiences for inspiration and kept polishing up a way to present this young Nicholas in a family that will resonate with a young audience. On their journey of world-building for this character, he became alive for them and started having conversations as if it were a living, breathing entity. With this, the film presents a dialogue between art and the artist, creation and its creator, through which it sheds light on how they impact each other’s lives, whether intentionally or not. Their conversations present a window into the creators’ hearts to understand their wishes and desires.
The animated film uses this device cleverly to create a stimulating film that is just gorgeous to look at due to its hand-drawn sketches. The inspiration for this style is the old era of comic books (from the time of the origin of Le Petit Nicolas) that truthfully brings back the beauty in imperfections. That alone makes it seem more human than the kind of close-to-life imitation of life that is mostly expected from animation these days. We see the episodes from the life of Nicholas in a thought bubble-like structure since the drawings are not finished till the edges. Call me sentimental, but these minute details make it even more endearing for me due to this style that is, unfortunately, fading now from mainstream cinema.
In the background of Nicholas’ experiences, we get to witness the lives Sempé and Goscinny led before and after its conception. While the stories are filled with adolescent drama cliches, they rather showcase the need of these two adult souls who had a troubling childhood. These cliches are their way to escape their unpleasant lives. The film is a sweet acknowledgment of how a creation not only serves the ones who experience it but the ones who create it to seek pleasure, to go beyond the confines of the choices that were possible or admissible to them. The narration smoothly swerves through their respective journeys and presents a collective experience that is consistently pleasing. While the film may seem like a rose-tinted look into the process of creation, it is emotionally resonant and hard to look away from.