'Les vacances du Petit Nicolas': Film Review

A bouncy energy and playful gags make the time fly by.

French director Laurent Tirard and local comedy stars Valerie Lemercier and Kad Merad reunite for this second film in the "Petit Nicolas" franchise.

PARIS -- The eponymous little French rascal is back for seconds in Les vacances du Petit Nicolas, director Laurent Tirard’s second adaptation of the French series of children’s books from the 1960s, created by Asterix writer René Goscinny and artist Jean-Jacques Sempé.

French comedy heavyweights Kad Merad (Welcome to the Sticks) and Valerie Lemercier (Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia) encore as the parents of little Nick, though thankfully this second entry is otherwise quite different, set over the summer holidays at a colorful beach-side hotel instead of the home-and-school setting of Little Nicolas and with a bouncier energy and more playful gags replacing the occasionally too stodgily nostalgic vibe of part one.

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Whether it’ll match the first film’s very impressive $48 million haul (which made it the number four film of 2009 in France, ahead of the Twilight films)  remains to be seen, since the first was released in September, to tie in with that film’s school setting, and Les vacances goes out just in time for the summer holidays, so factors such as the weather will influence overall box-office performance. Abroad, this could follow in the footsteps of the first as a delightful, candy-colored kids movie with a particularly French touch.

The little Nicolas, played by charming newcomer Matheo Boisselier since the lead from the 2009 film is now 15, has to listen to Mom (Mercier) and Dad (Merad) as they bicker about where the family should go on vacation. A compromise is reached when they settle on the beach, which Dad wanted, but Mom gets to take Grandma (Dominique Lavanant in a role originally conceived for the late Bernadette Lafont), who’s not Dad’s favorite person, to put it mildly.

From the arrival at their holiday destination, the narrative barrels forward at breakneck speed -- well, breakneck speed for young kids, anyway -- courtesy of the zippy screenplay, by Tirard, Little Nicolas writer Gregoire Vigneron and an assist from Belgian fantasist director Jaco Van Dormael (Toto le heros, Mister Nobody). The film consists of several loosely bundled plotlines involving mischief perpetrated by both the kids and their adult counterparts in and around the hotel, with enough time for some scenes of verbal comedy, including a stand-out sequence in which Dad, an office lackey, asks a stranger what he should write on a postcard to his boss (Daniel Prevost). Merad’s comic abilities are given a glorious workout here, as a relatively simple joke is spun into a scene-long series of laughs, while a character-driven undercurrent clearly telegraphs what kind of insecurities Nicolas’s Dad is really battling.

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Add to that the impeccable work of returning editor Valerie Deseine, who not only makes sure that her precision cuts land all the laughs but who is a master at montage sequences that, for example, quickly introduce characters, such as all the newfound summer friends of Nicolas, or give insight into what Nicolas might fear or think, such as a funny sequence involving the little boy’s potential partners at the altar. She also fluidly follows through each new setup all the way to the final punchline, such as the subplot about Dad and his boss, or the tribulations of another visiting family, headed by the burly and always welcome Bouli Lanners, which are skillfully woven in and out of the main narrative.

Costume designer Pierre-Jean Larroque and production designer Francoise Dupertuis have abandoned the red-and-black color scheme of the first film for the more summery, sand-and-sky combination of yellow and blue. The look of the early 1960s family hotel where most of the action is set strikes just the right balance between pastiche and homage and the same thing could be said of Eric Neveux’s supple score (Klaus Badelt’s work from the first film can still be heard in the amusing, animated opening scene).

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Larroque’s choices for a costumed ball also provide the opportunity for a romantic payoff to an otherwise somewhat hokey subplot involving an Italian director (Luca Zingaretti) who’s shooting a film in France. Indeed, though references to other films and directors are abundant, running the gamut from Tati to Kubrick and Fellini, the film is at its best when it simply tries to capture the spirit of the original in feature form.

Production companies: Fidelite Productions, Imave, Wild Bunch, M6 Films
Cast: Valerie Lemercier, Kad Merad, Dominique Lavanant, Francois-Xavier Demaison, Bouli Lanners, Matheo Boisselier, Luca Zingaretti
Director: Laurent Tirard
Screenwriters: Laurent Tirard, Gregoire Vigneron, Jaco Van Dormael, screenplay based on the book by René Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempé
Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonier
Director of photography: Denis Rouden
Production designer: Francoise Dupertuis
Costume designer: Pierre-Jean Larroque
Editor: Valerie Deseine
Composer: Eric Neveux
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 97 minutes

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