GKIDS Films has made a name for itself importing foreign animation that’s well off the beaten path tread by theatrical animation in the U.S. The stop-motion French-Swiss drama My Life as a Zucchini is one of the finest cases to date. Short on jokes but big on heart, My Life as a Zucchini offers an uncomfortable but ultimately rewarding examination of life for kids after the darkest point in their lives, when adults and the world around them have failed them and simple acts of kindness and friendship are the means to cope.
My Life as a Zucchini sets its tone early by showing the dysfunctional home life of 9-year-old Icare, who idles away his time with charming arts and crafts in his attic while his alcoholic mother raves and watches TV below. His father is long gone, represented only as a colorful superhero illustration on his hand-made kite. A simple accident provokes Icare’s mother to come after the boy for a harsh punishment, only for her to clumsily fall to an untimely demise when Icare reflexively shuts the door. Soon, Icare is shipped off to a group foster home in the countryside, and adapting isn’t easy. He insists on being called by “Zucchini,” his mother’s nickname for him, and goes through a brief period of denial about what happened. His nickname and introversion invite a period of hazing from the entrenched orphan Simon, which all the other kids do nothing about. At first it seems Zucchini’s only real friend will be the concerned police offer Raymond, but in time Zucchini and these motley group of kids find that there is something they have in common: troubled histories, flawed or absent parents, and the reality that the best comfort they have to rely on is each other.
Beyond its earnest emotional core, Zucchini stands out as a work of meticulous artistry that makes the most of its stop-motion puppetry. Its hand-crafted, colorful sets invoke a storybook-type setting evocative of the innocence childhood is supposed to have, while the large heads and oversized eyes of the characters allow for subtle and expressive character acting that’s an easy match even for the high-budget CG works of Pixar. The movie runs just over an hour but is never in a hurry, and never afraid to take a breath and let a heavy silence help tell the story. What can one add after such a heart-wrenching line as “There’s nobody left to love us” that doesn’t diminish the moment? With American films there’s so often an impulse to fill a moment with something, anything: a line of dialogue or at least some music to guide us to what we’re meant to feel. The film’s willingness to let a moment speak for itself, to not hand out easy answers right away, to simply let its subject be is a moving revelation — a challenge that compels the question why this is so rare.
Melancholy as Zucchini can be, it is a thoroughly honest film first and foremost, and fortunately it’s up to the task of also showing the brighter side of life while never indulging in rote storytelling cliches for the sake of drama. The typical fictional orphanage is a dreary, even hateful place from which to escape, whereas here it’s shown to be a safe refuge where the kids have freedom to play and bond and the adults in charge are genuinely invested in doing right by them. The head of the orphanage is conscientious and sensitive and never so much as raises her voice to others, a sharp contrast to the cruel headmistress trope. The heart of the film in many ways is Zucchini’s budding relationship with newcomer Claire, a girl his age with guilt issues of her own that the two bond over. Zucchini is clearly drawn to her but their relationship turns toward strong friendship rather than any pretense at a romantic arc, which is again refreshing and entirely appropriate considering their age.
Just as valuable is the growing bond he has with officer Raymond, a paragon of patience who’s constantly willing to lend a patient ear and never condescends. In Zucchini, he has a second chance at a father / son relationship he couldn’t fulfill before, and the empathy that comes from experience and the regret of that history is apparent. When Zucchini first comes to the orphanage it seems as though he’s fated to have a perpetual bullying problem with fellow orphan Simon, who prides himself on knowing the reason every other kid is at the home. But his insensitivity and seeming hostility give way once he gets to know the person behind Zucchini’s strange-seeming exterior, and it’s apparent that Simon’s interest in the histories of other kids is more about having a feeling of control and a confidence that he’s not alone in his circumstances and uncertainty than any kind of real cruelty. None of that is to make excuses for his more dubious behavior, but the film effectively sells him as an imperfect boy that’s nonetheless capable of great empathy.
GKIDS’s release of the film includes the usual combination of the film on both Blu-ray and DVD disc, in addition to a digital copy. Extras are not extensive but a fun addition is director Claude Barras’ short “The Genie in a Tin of Ravioli,” a whimsical 7-minute piece about a worker in a pasta factory who has the fortune of getting two wishes from the singing-prone title character. An 18-minute making-of featurette touches upon all aspects of the film’s production, from the crafting of the puppets to the painstaking effort required to create the film (a week of work for 2-3 minutes!) to the savvy decision to cast children for key parts and let them ad-lib for the sake of authenticity. The U.S. theatrical trailer rounds out the bonus material along with promotional trailers for other GKIDS offerings, specifically April and the Extraordinary World, Boy and the Word, Miss Hokusai, Ocean Waves, Only Yesterday and Phantom Boy.
My Life As a Zucchini has been the recipient of many accolades and a nomination for the Oscar award for Best Animated Feature, and it’s not hard to see why. This is a film that shines a spotlight on the insecurities of youth in a way comparable to Charles M. Schulz’s famous Peanuts comic strip at its best, although unlike Charlie Brown, Zucchini’s story has the advantage of an ending and a tale about overcoming anxieties at heart. For every sad moment and heartbreaking anecdote, there’s a time for some simple joy, a moment for empathy, a sign that there is a dawn that can come after even the darkest parts of our lives. All this may not make the film friendly viewing for the whole family, but adults and maturing youth alike will find here a winsome piece of entertainment that’s all the more admirable for its refusal to pander.