My Life as a ZucchiniReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/11/17 03:20:08
The charm in this film is appropriately low-key, as there's a clear, earnest darkness to it even before the event that has the title character shipped off to a group home. Fortunately, this doesn't make for a joyless movie; it may have moments of horror and bits of sadness that can't be escaped, but it's as much a film about resilient children rather than broken ones. And it’s a pretty terrific one.As it opens, 9-year-old Icare - whom his perpetually-drunk mother calls “Courgette”, (“Zucchini” in English) - is making the best of his situation, playing in his attic by flying a kite with a superhero drawn on it out the window and stacking the alarming number of empty beer cans strewn about the apartment into a tower. It draws the ire of Courgette’s mother, and after she falls climbing to the attic, a friendly policeman (voiced by Michel Vuillermoz in French/Nick Offerman in English) brings Courgette (voices of Gaspard Schlatter/Erick Abbate) to a group home in a different neighborhood. Most of the kids there are nervous or timid, but Simon (voices of Paulin Jaccoud/Romy Beckman) is kind of a bullying brat. Courgette will not be the new kid for long - soon Camille (voices of Sixtine Murat/Ness Krell) is in the girls’ bedroom, with a similar story but also a mean Aunt Ida (voices of Brigitte Rosset/Amy Sedaris) whom Camille is afraid to be alone with.
This relatively short feature is playing with one of director Claude Barras’s short films in its American release, and one thing I immediately noted carrying over is how carefully he creates environments. The opening of this movie will not strike a viewer as looking realistic, but there’s something about the barren right angles of the apartment with walls covered by crayon drawings that doesn’t feel like a stop-motion set, especially as Barras pushes his camera in close. It’s the same with the police station, where Barrass zooms into a screen that looks like the sort of MS-DOS application that likely lingers in underfunded government offices, but doesn’t show a keyboard that might look adorably reduced or like an excessively precise miniature reproduction. As Raymond drives Courgette to his new home, though, the feel changes: Simple shapes now seem to reflect a child’s point of view, as do cars making just slightly impossible turns as if guided by someone’s hand and the lack of precisely squared borders. There’s space where there wasn’t before, and even if Mme. Papineau’s home isn’t luxuriously large, there’s room to move around. From moment to moment, the animation style allows this movie to be a fantasy, a memory, and the way a kid might tell his own story.
It's a great example of how beautifully precise stop-motion can be, and the character design reflects that, most notably from the scars characters carry around without overt comment. Barras gives the kids enormous heads in the way that many cartoonists do, but in this case it’s to accommodate large eyes, glassy and articulated enough to reflect and make the viewer feel like he or she is connecting with a human rather than staring at some flat simulation. The comparatively small mouths make them seem nervous to talk, with the reddish cast to their noses suggest crying, with the clumpy clay hair hinting at their personalities. A clever bit in our first glimpse of Courgette is how the shading around the sockets looks like a black eye, and I’m not quite sure whether it fades over the course of the film while still being his coloring or if Barras and his team was just particularly skilled with the lighting there.
That’s a lot of ways to use the medium to indicate initial sadness and abuse that never quite leaves the characters, and despite not having any real overt violence, there’s certainly enough dark material that I’d recommend it mainly for kids who are old enough to read subtitles. It is not, however, entirely or even primarily depressing movie; though Barras and his co-writers (adapting a book by Gilles Paris) prove good at creating moments of piquant sadness, they also show just as many moments of grace as the kids pull together and support each other. There’s a careful but not quite explicit emphasis on the kids never being made to feel ashamed, and deserving adults who treat them with respect.
It comes through in at least the French-language voice acting, which seems to cast actual kids who nevertheless find the right notes for their complicated, damaged characters rather than adults trying to imitate children. There’s a stark division between how the helpful and disdainful adults are voiced, although Barras and company don’t exaggerate too much, even if the film is from a kid’s point of view. GKids seems to have put together a nice voice cast for the English-dubbed version, although I can’t imagine the scene in the middle of the credits having quite the same impact without the original voices.Of course, that scene is just a bonus; but one that demonstrates how, despite how making a stop-motion feature like this must at some point become a painstaking, mechanical process, it works because there is genuine feeling put into it from the start. The kids in "My Life as a Zucchini" may be made of clay, but they’re astonishingly genuine.
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