My Life as a Zucchini

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
My Life as a Zucchini
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Nine-year old Icare was given the nickname Zucchini by his mother when just a baby. But, his father left them and mom descended into a fog of constant drinking and verbal abuse of the boy. A terrible accident places now-orphaned Zucchini into a home with other like children. There, the boy learns the meaning of love, loyalty and friendship in “My Life as a Zucchini.”

This little stop-motion animation, a Swiss-French production, is nominated for a Best Animation Feature Oscar and was Switzerland’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category. This attention, among other awards and nominations, is well deserved for “Zucchini” director Claude Barras and scripter Celine Sciamma’s adaptation Gilles Paris’s 2002 novel, Autobiographie d’une Courgette, They create a story about orphaned children that targets older kids and teens but, intentionally or not, also strikes a note in adults.

The filmmakers keep it simple, or that is how it seems. Anyone familiar with stop-motion animation is aware of the painstaking process in bringing inanimate objects to life. Yes, it is simple but the results, which are well familiar to the old Aardman Animation fans (“Wallace and Gromit”), brings the viewer into a quite real little world of the orphans.

Zucchini, when he first arrives at the orphanage accompanied by the kindly police officer, Ray, who was the first to talk to the boy after his mom’s death, meets the other kids who live there. He is shy, at first, and bullied by the alpha orphan, Simon, until a newcomer, Camille, arrives. It is love at first sight for Zucchini and life improves for the boy, dramatically.

Nothing really happens in the day-to-day life in the orphanage and that is exactly what grabs and hold you as you watch “My Life as a Zucchini.” The characters are all sympathetic – even Simon – and you invest yourself in their lives, fears and happiness. And, it is a real happily-ever-after tale. I give it an A-.

After Zucchini's mom dies in an accident, he tells a police officer, Raymond, 'She drank a lot of beer, but made good mashed potatoes and sometimes we had fun together.'  With his father only present as a super hero on the young boy's kite, he's sent to the Fontaines Foster Care Center.  All these kids have suffered abuse and Zucchini faces hazing from the group's bad boy, Simon, but eventually they all bond, learn to trust adults and even fall in love in "My Life as a Zucchini."

Adapted from the Gilles Paris novel by Céline Sciamma ("Water Lilies," "Girlhood"), this first feature from director Claude Barras is a serious look at how children survive all sorts of terrible trials.  But despite some darkness, "My Life as a Zucchini" is a charming, often hilarious stop motion animation crafted with exceptional expressiveness.

The foster care home is run by Mrs. Papineau.  She may be strict, but she wants the best for the children in her care.  Besides Simon, whose parents were drug addicts, there is tomboy Camille, whose aunt is fighting for her custody for the financial benefit, Ahmed, the group's creative dreamer, Jujube, who eats everything in sight, withdrawn Alice and Bea, whose mom was deported to Africa.  Watching this damaged and dysfunctional group pull together and begin to support one another is heartening.  When Alice sits repetitively banging a fork, Camille soothes her, brushing her hair out of her face.  Simon explains the birds and the bees to Jujube, giving all the boys serious concern during a dance (you may never get the phrase 'exploding willies' out of your head again).  Their professor, Mr. Paul, takes them on a ski trip.  And just when it looks like Camille's Aunt Ida may have the upper hand, crushing Zucchini's heart, everything comes together in the most miraculous way.

Barras doesn't go for realism with his puppets so much as expression.  Zucchini himself has blue hair, blue circles around his eyes and a carrot colored and shaped nose that lend him an air of beaten down exhaustion.  (A few of Fontaines' fosters resemble clay versions of 'South Park's' Goth kids.)  Art direction is more naturalistic (a scary house ride, with its "Nightmare Before Christmas" look, excepted).  Sophie Hunger's original music is soft and nurturing, but even that gets a hit with what sounds like German Industrial music during the kids' disco dance.  Everything in Barras's paintbox is a contrast of harshness and light.

"My Life as a Zucchini" is a truly great animation, its harsher truths softened with its optimistic outlook.  It's a creatively designed work that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike.

Grade: A
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