Stop-motion is a versatile medium. Rankin/Bass popularized it in the form of holiday classics. Tim Burton gave it grit with The Nightmare Before Christmas. LAIKA made it into art with Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings. Now French director Claude Barras has crafted a kitchen-sink drama out of it with My Life as a Zucchini.
My Life as a Zucchini, a French-language film (though I saw it dubbed excellently into English), was nominated for an Oscar in the animated feature category. It barely squeaked in, as it is little more than one hour long, but within that brief period contains more detail and honest emotion this side of Pixar. It’s melancholy tone cuts the inherently fanciful nature of stop-motion (specifically, claymation, in which the characters are composed chiefly of clay), as does the wrenching narrative. The film practically whispers its matter-of-fact story, refusing sentimentality at every turn. In this sense, the film is decidedly European, so it’s no wonder that it lost the award to the streetwise, New York-inflected Zootopia.
Icare, nicknamed Zucchini (Erick Abbate), is a quiet, artistic nine-year-old. His father left him years ago (dead or not, we don’t know), which may be the reason why his mother is an alcoholic who spends her days drinking and yelling at the television. Zucchini understandably fears her, so when she becomes enraged and is about to beat the boy, he accidentally knocks her off the attic ladder and she falls to her death. Left without parents, Zucchini is brought to an orphanage by a kind police officer named Raymond (Nick Offerman, who should be voicing Jim Gordon in a Batman movie). The small orphanage has a host of five other children, headed up by de facto leader Simon (Romy Beckham), a boy whose hard exterior belies deep wounds. Like Zucchini, the other kids’ parents are just as troubled: deportation, imprisonment, drugs – you get the picture. Their fast camaraderie and the presence of loving caretakers like teacher Mr. Paul (Will Forte) and surrogate mother Rosy (Ellen Page) make their dark days a bit brighter. Then Zucchini’s world is thrown askew when a pretty newcomer named Camille (Ness Krell) is dragged into the orphanage by her loathsome Aunt Ida (Amy Sedaris).
When the only glaring flaw of the film is its clumsy title, you know you have a strong work of art on your hands. Barras, in his feature-length debut, shows himself to be a master of tone. Going as far back as Dickens, orphaned children have long been a ripe subject for drama, but the result often ends up as a hand-wringing session designed to pull your heart strings and generally make you feel bad. In the case of My Life as a Zucchini, both the high and low points are handled with extreme delicacy, never punctuated by manipulative music or the overzealous commentary of a supporting character. The closest we get to Barras underscoring the film’s meaning is the ongoing sight of a bird building her nest, laying eggs, and raising chicks with her mate, a progression that Barras employs much in the same way as Yasujiro Ozu used his famous “pillow shots”, which are designed to give breathing room between the scenes. The film may have a recognizable three-act structure, but most of the events that take place in between the major plot points exist to develop the cast of characters. We come to love and empathize with each of the children at the orphanage, even the troubled Simon, despite how difficult it must be to take care of these small, damaged people.
The film is based on the novel by Gilles Paris, originally titled Autobiographie D’une Courgette, but Barras’s handling of the story feels very personal, as if the filmmaker himself was a young orphan once. This is merely conjecture and ultimately irrelevant to the film’s quality, but I bring it up because the director’s sense of empathy for the characters is so palpable. The decision to work in claymation was a wise one, as the medium works to distance us from the harsh lives the children lead: to watch a flesh-and-blood version would either be too much to bear or too large an ask of a cast of young actors. Barras achieves that distancing effect chiefly by designing the characters in a cartoonish, almost clown-like way. Save for some characters of color, Zucchini and the others are almost all deathly pale, with bright red noses and flushed cheeks. Zucchini’s hair is blue, matching the cyan shading around his enormous eyes. The characters’ arms are all simian in length, lending them a drooping quality that befits their hangdog environment. The film is somber and reserved, but it is not without joy: the orphanage whisks the children away on a trip to snow-covered mountains that climaxes in a delightful snowball match in a cabin.
The fundamental truth conveyed by My Life as a Zucchini is that we all want – and deserve – to be loved by someone, and that to live even a moment without that in your life can feel devastating. There is a repeated shot in the film of the staring eyes of the children that can only be described as bald-faced envy. Anyone who is lucky enough not to have grown up in a difficult or fractured family situation will find My Life as a Zucchini to be solemnly revealing. Anyone else may have trouble reliving their own trying experiences. In any case, the film is lovely and moving, proving that you can get your money’s worth out of 65 minutes just as much as you can a two and a half hour superhero flick.
Animation | Gkids