‘Le Petit Nicolas’

Idyllic boyhood tale gives imagination free reign


For the defeated nations of World War II, the 1950s were a time of chaotic struggle, but for the victors, it was a time of stability, growing affluence and general cheerfulness (at least on the surface). Suited dads went to work and returned home for dinner, while moms stayed at home and could be relied upon to greet the kids with a snack and a smile when they got home from school.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? A window on this idyllic lifestyle can be seen in “Le Petit Nicolas” (released in Japan and elsewhere as “Little Nicolas”), based on the famed book series of the same name that was first published in France in 1959.

The series revolves around the life of 8-year old Nicolas, who was perhaps the first fictional child character in mainstream Western literature to tell his own story in his own voice and at his own pace. For generations, French language teachers have used the series for teaching purposes, but the story lines require more than a rudimentary knowledge of French. Nicolas has a tendency to let his thoughts and emotions overflow and often invents words at the spur of the moment when real-life ones just won’t suit his purpose. Written by French author Rene Goscinny (cocreator of “Asterix”) and illustrated by artist Jean-Jacques Sempe (whose poster work defined the French pop art of the era), “Nicolas” is a treasure trove of all things French in the late 1950s, as iconic as the baguette, the beret, the striped T-shirt.

Le Petit Nicolas
Director Laurent Tirard
Run Time 91 minutes
Language French (subtitled in Japanese)

The film’s production must have had its difficulties — transplanting Goscinny’s text and Sempe’s quirky minimalism to cinema, with flesh-and-blood characters into the bargain, could very likely tick off Nicolas loyalists everywhere. But director Laurent Tirard (“Moliere”) avoids the land mines common to movies about children and carefully weeds out any trace of obnoxiousness to show a genuinely delightful world crammed with nostalgia for a childhood untethered by adult concerns and pressures.

Nicolas’ world is gloriously closed off from the tsunami of information that surrounds children of the 21st century. Blithely unaware of most happenings outside his colorful, bourgeois family apartment, the paved sidewalks of his neighborhood and the confines of his school, Nicolas (played by the excellent Maxime Godart) is free to be a happy kid, adored by his parents and supported by his numerous copains (buddies).

One thing will strike you: the immense reservoir of time Nicolas has, that allows him to plunge into endless whimsical fantasy or hang out with his friends, unsupervised and uninterrupted by grownups. His imagination roams free, and this occasionally takes his day into unexpected quarters.

The film focuses on one episode from the books: Nicolas misunderstands an argument, and subsequent making-up, between Maman (Valerie Lemercier) and Papa (Kad Merad) to mean that they are having a new baby, with the result that his position in the apartment will be jeopardized. Desperate to remain in the family, Nicolas — with the aid of his friends — launches a campaign to be a better, more loving little boy; and when that fails, plots to hire some gangsters to kidnap his nonexistent brother.

The humor here is often subversive, even dark, which Tirard makes no attempt to curb or conceal. It reflects how much more respectful the French are when depicting on-screen kids and their parents: A Hollywood production would not hesitate to scatter “I love yous” to tide over the rough bits (as in “Where the Wild Things Are”), but here, there is no such treacle to temper the palate. Accordingly, there is always a shadowy ghost of unexplained trauma lurking beneath the fun-filled exterior of Nicolas’ world — which when you consider it, is exactly what being a child is like.

Tirard says in the French production notes that he tried to duplicate the spirit of the original series, partly because he loved reading it, and partly because he wanted to draw the kind of idyllic childhood he himself never had.

Speaking of which, Nicolas is radically different from another child hero with his own series: Harry Potter. You can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Harry, who’s never allowed to relax, is always pressed for time and is a wiz at multitasking. Is it a French thing that Nicolas and his pals are given plenty of space to just be themselves, without judgment or the pressure to prove themselves? They know that whatever happens, they can always go home at the end of the day to an apron-clad mom, whose very presence is a reassurance that their happy childhood is intact and secure, far into the future. Not a bad slice of c’est la vie.

Japan title: “Little Nicolas”