The Little Nicolas -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

PARIS -- Le Petit Nicolas, along with Asterix and Lucky Luke, is one of a small number of French cartoon figures who have captured the imagination of school children around the world. This screen version, "Little Nicolas," technically proficient and featuring two of France's best comic actors, has been timed to mark the 50th anniversary of the scamp's appearance in print. Since in its first week of release the film has already clocked up well over a million ticket sales in its home market, it's hard to see it failing to do good business in other territories although North American may be an exception.

Director Laurent Tirard, assisted by co-writers Alain Chabat and Gregoire Vigneron and advised by Anne Goscinny, daughter of Nicolas' creator Rene Goscinny, has strung together a series of episodes drawn from the books and formed them into a plot of sorts. Misinterpreting a conversation between his parents (Valerie Lemercier, Kad Merad) to mean that he is shortly to have a little brother, Nicolas (Maxime Godart) fears the prospect of being upstaged and possibly even abandoned in favor of the newcomer. He recruits his school chums to carry out a plan to avert this unwelcome competition.

"Little Nicolas" faithfully reproduces the prim, decorous world of suburban France in the postwar years -- pre-Beatles, pre-pill, pre-immigration -- portrayed in the books and seen in other nostalgia-tinged movies such as "The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain" or "The Chorus" (to which the movie refers in a brief appearance by Gerard Jugnot).

The movie is no funnier than it has to be. School-kids by the hundreds of thousands will probably love it. The parents they bring in their wake, curious to see what the filmmakers have made of the books they themselves read, may have mixed feelings.

The sly, gentle humor of the books and the elegance of Jean-Jacques Sempe's illustrations have given way to a literal-minded, sometimes leaden alignment of scenes that are more or less comic, according to taste. Goscinny's anarchic 7-year-olds have morphed into a group of mildly larky, gauche 10-year-olds, and while the movie has its moments, the spark of fantasy that would have made it full-throttle funny is mostly missing.

Sadly, the actions and dialogue by the central character have no real wit or bite, so that when in a closing voice-over Nicolas says his ambition in life is "to make people laugh," it is hard to imagine him succeeding.

Opened: France -- Oct. 1
Production companies: Fidelite, IMAV, Wild Bunch, M6 Films
Cast: Valerie Lemercier, Kad Merad, Sandrine Kiberlain, Maxime Godart, Francois-Xavier Desmaison, Michel Duchaussoy, Daniel Prevost, Michel Galabru, Anemone
Director: Laurent Tirard
Writers: Laurent Tirard, Alain Chabat, Gregoire Vigneron
Based on the works of: Rene Goscninny Jean-Jacques Sempe
Producers: Christine de Jekel, Sylvestre Guarino, Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Director of photography: Denis Rouden
Production design: Francoise Dupertuis
Music: Klaus Bedelt
Editor: Valerie Deseine
Sales: Wild Bunch International
No rating, 90 minutes