Charged by the colorful spark of classic 2D animation, Little Nicholas is a slight but beautifully-rendered tribute to one of France’s most enduring figures. As a huge lover of animation in any form, the second I spotted this on the Cannes slate, I knew I had to see it. In French with English subtitles, I was completely immersed in this vibrant universe. Surprising emotional depth and effective vocalwork aside, Little Nicholas earns goodwill off the back of its charming depiction of platonic male friendship.
The format of the story is curious indeed, with half of it taking place in the fantastical world of Little Nicholas himself, circa an exaggerated 1950s France; the other half takes place in a slightly-fantastical version of Paris. This half is the tale of Jean-Jacques Sempé and René Goscinny, two pals who collaborated to form Nicholas into the figure he became. Jean provided the artwork, while René would craft the stories to accompany them. The film is rather upfront about René’s ultimate fate, as it depicts a beaten-down Jean in 1977. From here, Little Nicholas jumps back and forth in time, showing us Nicholas as he literally crawls off the page and onto the typewriter to playfully squabble with both creators.
I loved seeing the depiction of the early days, when Jean and René were toying with Nicholas’s background and lifestyle. Their own personal histories and experiences were often reflected into the material. Nicholas’s fake family and home gets erased then restructured via hand-drawn delights. Watching his very character born at Chez Michelle Cafe through the eyes of these two legends serves to highlight his importance. The character of Nicholas is simply a sensitive and naive cutie whose intelligence levels far surpass those of adults. While I could watch a movie focusing on either Little Nicholas or on Jean and René with effortless glee, I simply wish the two disparate halves could be separated from other another. Trying to fold Nicholas into the backstories of his creators feels inspired, but a lack of bold characterization holds it back slightly.
Ultimately, Little Nicholas drags a bit more than it should, and the narrative is scattered due to jumps back and forth both between time and worlds. However, who really cares when the story it is capturing is so beautiful. Described as “Chinese ink-wash animation,” the artwork successfully emulates the original style of the subject matter. Gorgeous apparent quick sketch-work and the format of 2D animation provides a window into this world that would simply not have been possible through use of another medium. Brainstorming and the power of collaborative creation are essentials to the world of Little Nicholas, both literally and figuratively. Little Nicholas is one of the cutest movies of the year!
Little Nicholas screened at 2022’s Cannes Film Festival.