My Life as a Zucchini is a coming-of-age treat for the eyes and the hearts. Its simple yet thoughtful recipe includes a healthy serving of beautifully animated stop motion pieces, a dollop of adorable characters and a dash of life lessons learned along the way. Though the visuals seem tailor-made for children, the story goes deeper and darker than your typical Disney animated fare and parental guidance is advised. Regardless of the audience, after a taste of My Life as a Zucchini, you’re almost guaranteed to leave the theater with a smile on your face, a tickle in your tummy and soft tug in your heart.
As the second adaptation of the Gilles Paris’ 2002 novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette (the first adaptation was a French live-action television movie), the Swiss and French animated feature is at once surprising and irresistible. Zucchini (Gaspard Schlatter) is a 10-year-old boy with piercing eyes, a bright red nose and Smurf-blue hair whose toys include beer cans and a kite featuring a drawing of his estranged father. After his alcoholic mother’s (Natacha Koutchoumov) untimely death, Zucchini ends up in the care of policeman Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz).
His real name is Icare but Zucchini prefers the vegetable nickname given to him by his mother. It’s one of his many oddities as the product of an unhappy marriage and a troubled childhood. Raymond takes Zucchini to an orphanage, where he meets children as messed up, or in some cases even more so, than he is. Though they’re all cute as buttons, each child has a dark backstory and their parents are either dead, in jail or deported from the country. As the tough-talking orphan Simon (Paulin Jaccoud) says, these children no longer have anyone to love them.
Like the Lost Boys of Peter Pan and the Rugrats, Zucchini and his friends are a rag-tag group of kids who form a makeshift family. They learn to love each other despite and because of their unique circumstances. One child was a victim of pedophilia and another had drug-addicted parents. One child’s immigrant father committed a crime for the sake of his child that landed him in prison. These stories sound like the clickbait headlines we’re all guilty of indulging in. Yet rarely do we think or learn about what happens to those affected by these stories after they’ve been published. My Life as a Zucchini shows us the repercussions of such stories on some of the youngest members of society.
Despite its bright color palette and child-like animation, My Life as a Zucchini deals with very serious adult issues. The kids talk about everything from sex and relationships to death and murder. These themes are explored through the point of view of the child Zucchini, who illustrates his thoughts in the form of mailed drawings to Raymond and voiceover narration. The film is not your typical animated fairytale either – characters aren’t merely good or evil, they’re human and they make mistakes. Zucchini himself has a secret he must learn to overcome and only when he accepts it is he able to grow up and help others, including the new girl Camille (Sixtine Murat). When Camille is faced with the threat of leaving the orphanage to live with her sleazy aunt, Zucchini, Simon and the other kids put together an inventive plan to help save their new friend.
My Life as a Zucchini is intimate and touching, in a way that is not often seen in mainstream animation. It’s an impressive feature debut by Swiss director Claude Barras. Its rich emotional narrative is also partly due to animation director Kim Keukeleire, who worked on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and is lead animator on the director’s upcoming Isle of Dogs. Keukeleire’s attention to detail shines, including the use of subtle hues highlighting each child’s pair of ping-pong ball-shaped eyes, as if to underscore the effects of a life of tears and suffering. Barras’ camera captures every little detail, while keeping the shots straightforward and simple to present each event as if through the eyes of a child.
My Life as a Zucchini was Switzerland’s foreign-language entry to the Academy Awards this year. It received a nomination for Best Animated Feature, though it lost to Zootopia. The Disney animated film may have resonated with Oscar voters in dealing with timely American issues of racism and prejudice through comedy (not to mention a star-studded voice acting cast). But those who saw My Life as a Zucchini might agree that the small film’s themes are just as powerful. Unlike its Oscar nominated counterparts who tend to verge on large-scale productions with funny side characters and poppy soundtracks, My Life as a Zucchini is a deceptively simple story that deals with complex emotional issues not often tackled in animation. It is rich with visual details and witty dialogue that translates even in subtitles. Less is more in this film, and it works.
The running time of just over an hour is perfect for this sweet yet emotionally decadent film. It is now playing at the Nuart Theater in West Los Angeles (if you are not in Los Angeles, check your local listings for screenings in your area), paired with Barras’ short film The Genie in a Ravioli Can, an equally delightful and delicious piece that makes for the perfect amuse-bouche for this poignant and potent veggie tale.