"The little Nicolas"awarded at Annecy, much more than a simple adaptation of Sempé and Goscinny

This animated film, which adapts certain short stories from Petit Nicolas and traces the history of its creators, won the Cristal for feature film at the Annecy Festival on Saturday.

True image of Epinal of France of the fifties, Le Petit Nicolas is renewed in an atypical film, Le Petit Nicolas – What are we waiting for to be happy?, which won the Cristal for feature film at the Annecy Festival on Saturday. This proposal goes against public expectations, to be discovered in theaters on October 12, indeed mixes the news of Goscinny and Sempé with an evocation of their youth.

“It’s a story of resilience of two men who had their childhood stolen – one by the Shoah, the other by an abusive father – and created this perfect Little Nicolas to make up for their shortcomings”, summarizes Benjamin Massoubre , the co-director of the film.

This “a bit crazy” idea was difficult to come up with, adds Amandine Fredon, her co-director: “The channels did not understand who the target was, whether it was for children or for adults.” It must be said that the film is not classic, even in its structure: “There are no narrative arcs, we follow the emotional evolution of the characters. We respect the short format of the news to preserve the poetry.” Without the golden age of animation today in France, this film would never have seen the light of day.

A solar film on the search for happiness

Originally, Le Petit Nicolas – What are we waiting for to be happy? should have been even more experimental, reveals Amandine Fredon: “The idea was to mix archival images of the authors with animated sequences of the Little Nicholas. The archive images being too poor quality, the producers suggested doing everything in animation.” Yvan Attal, who briefly worked on the project in 2018, planned to mix drawn sequences and live action for the biographical parts.

At the origin of the project is Anne Goscinny, daughter of René, whose memory she has honored in recent years in various exhibitions, comics, novels and sculptures. With Le Petit Nicolas – What are we waiting for to be happy?, René Goscinny becomes an animated character. A beautiful tribute when you know how much the brilliant screenwriter loved cinema and dreamed of working in animation, like his idol Walt Disney.

To embody René Goscinny, Benjamin Massoubre and Amandine Fredon called on Alain Chabat. Obvious as the ex-Nul has often been compared to the screenwriter. Laurent Lafitte lends his voice to Sempé. The two actors were very invested in dubbing. “For the sequence of the Shoah, Alain put himself in condition beforehand. He was very intense”, recalls Benjamin Massoubre. “It’s a real asset for an animated film to work with great actors.”

Film haunted by death – notably that of René Goscinny, shown twice -, Le Petit Nicolas – What are we waiting for to be happy? remains a solar film, insist Benjamin Massoubre and Amandine Fredon: “It’s a film about overcoming trauma, about the search for happiness. We want people to leave their session with a smile, even if we tackle subjects which are hard. Our initial idea was also to make a very sincere film.”

Animate Sempé

The biggest challenge of the film was to reproduce the line of one of the greatest designers of the 20th century, Sempé. An impressive work carried out by the two artistic directors of the film, Fursy Teyssier and Juliette Laurent. Because it is not easy to transpose Sempé’s upstrokes and downstrokes to the screen, a style as simple as it is difficult to master, which consists of mixing a thick line and a thin line within the same line.

Le Petit Nicolas - What are we waiting for to be happy?
Le Petit Nicolas – What are we waiting for to be happy? © Copyright ONYX Films – Bidibul Productions

On screen, the resemblance is striking, although the line is often a bit thicker than Sempé’s. A betrayal necessary for questions of staging, so that the characters remain visible on the screen, underlines Amandine Fredon:

“If the line is too thin in the tight shots, there is too much white and there is too much light. And since Sempé works with very few lines, certain details risked becoming less visible on the screen. We would have less saw the character!”

The finesse of Sempé’s line is also such that it is impossible to animate Le Petit Nicolas in close-ups, notes Amandine Fredon: “As his name is Le Petit Nicolas, he had to remain small in the image. We it was a bit of a headache and so we dared to take wide shots to keep the characters tiny.”

“These are real animation performances”, concludes Benjamin Massoubre. “Some shots last a minute, a minute and a half, sometimes with four characters.” A way to renew a character too often adapted to the cinema. And to modernize stories that are now a little dated.

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