Film Review: My Life as a Zucchini

Director Claude Barras brings real affection to his stop-motion tale of the day-to-day lives of a group of orphans.
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It’s clear from its very first scene that Claude Barras’ My Life as a Zucchini isn’t going to be like the standard animated fare that hits multiplexes. That makes sense: Its U.S. distributor is GKids, which over the last eight years has had great success distributing sophisticated-leaning international fare such as The Secret of KellsBoy and the World and the works of Studio Ghibli. Still, even for GKids, Zucchini’s opening is a bit eyebrow-raising: A young boy accidentally kills his mother while attempting to defend himself from one of her drunken rages. Illumination Entertainment this ain’t.

But don’t let that description lead you to believe that Barras’ debut feature, based on a script from Tomboy and Girlhood writer Céline Sciamma, is an exercise in dourness. Instead, with its storybook stop-motion style and vibrant color palette, My Life as a Zucchini is an upbeat, even charming look at the lives of a group of orphans living in a French group home.

The orphanage here, Fontaines, isn’t some nightmare out of Gothic literature. When young Icare—nicknamed “Zucchini” by his late mother—is taken to his new home by kindly police officer Raymond (voiced by Nick Offerman in the English-language dub), he finds a director (Susanne Blakeslee) and staff (Will Forte and Ellen Page) who genuinely care for their young charges. No one’s locked in a closet or denied food. At the same time, Zucchini makes a point of not shying away from the grim realities of many children in foster care. One of Zucchini’s new compatriots witnessed her father murder her mother, then kill himself; little Bea’s mother was deported, while Georgie’s mother suffers from extreme OCD. Barras doesn’t linger on backstory, but it’s always present, in the shellshocked behavior of young Alice (“Her dad…they say he was a real creep”) or the tendency of skittish Ahmed—whose father landed in jail after a botched attempt to steal Ahmed a pair of sneakers—to wet the bed. “We’re all the same,” says delinquent Simon, whose parents are drug addicts. “There’s no one left to love us.”

Zucchini’s biggest flaw isn’t its darkness, but the fact that it’s a bit too light. For all the problems suffered by its young characters before the film starts rolling—and for all those problems still affect their lives on an emotional level—any conflict at the orphanage itself is wrapped up swiftly and neatly. Simon bullies Zucchini, but 15 minutes later they’re friends, having bonded over shared tragedies. Questions over the eventual fate of Zucchini and his object of affection Camille, whose abusive aunt (Amy Sedaris) wants to adopt her for the government subsidy, are raised and dealt with in short order. Equal weight is given to a weekend ski trip where nothing much happens. One can’t fault Barras and Sciamma—and Gilles Paris, on whose novel Zucchini is based—for not wanting to wallow in the misery of children, but all the same, a swing too far in the other direction lends the 68-minute Zucchini a somewhat insubstantial feel.

But hey—if Zucchini falls just on the wrong side of too slight, it’s also a sweet, airy confection of a movie, which makes it a welcome break from the often overstuffed, frenetic pace of other, bigger animated films. The stop-motion animation is gorgeous, and you can tell Barras, Sciamma and Paris have a real respect for the characters they’ve brought to life and their too-frequent real-world counterparts.

Click here for cast and crew information. My Life as a Zucchini is playing in U.S. theatres in both the English and original French versions.