Zootopia just won Best Animated Feature. It’s a good movie, with one of the funniest set pieces in recent memory (it involves a sloth), and yet Zootopia is self-involved to a fault. It knows it is capital-S Serious, to the point where parents congratulate themselves for taking their kids to see it. My Life as a Zucchini was also nominated for Best Animated Feature, and its primary purpose is not to celebrate liberal parents. My Life as a Zucchini may be about abandoned children, but it never once condescends to them.
Director Claude Barras uses stop-motion animation, so his characters have heft and weight. The titular Zucchini (Gaspard Schlatter) is a good kid who has a bad mother. She’s a drunk, with beer cans littering the house, and the prologue ends when Zucchini accidentally causes her death. Barras does not dwell on the requisite guilt because, well, neither does Zucchini. He keeps his feelings to himself and ends up at an orphanage with several other children. All of them have their problems—Simon (Paulin Jaccoud) is a bully, for example, while another wets the bed—and yet they have each other’s backs because they know no one else will. Camille (Sixtine Murat) eventually arrives, and Zucchini falls in love instantly. At least he’s smart enough to keep his feelings to himself.
Children are fundamentally conservative. They crave routine, and any break from routine—no matter how awful or destructive—represents an unsustainable loss. My Life as a Zucchini is about children who negotiate new routines, a process that requires pain and a yearning for acceptance. But Barras and his screenwriters do not dwell on pain, and their film is ultimately warm. The kids care about each other, more or less, and the film oscillates between empathy and cruelty. Simon needles Zucchini, finding his weakness and unearthing it, yet there’s a deeper well of caring behind it. The kids are consistent insofar that they are impulsive and motivated by grief. The film’s wisdom lies in how the kids lack the emotional maturity to deal with it.
Unlike the crisp CGI behind Zootopia and the enhanced stop-motion of Kubo and the Two Strings, My Life as a Zucchini looks and feels homemade. The animation is clay, and the characters are cute without being too obnoxious about it. All the children have disproportionate heads and small bodies, but what matters most is their eyes. Their eyes are huge, which makes them expressive and strange. Zucchini and the others guard their feelings—they cry sometimes, albeit infrequently—but Barras lets their faces betray their yearning.
There are conflicts between Zucchini and the others, but the film never goes for the easy payoff. Zucchini and Simon sneak into the headmaster’s office, just so they can unearth what happened to Camille’s parents. A lesser film would maintain that secret, turning the knowledge into a hurdle between the awkward romance between Zucchini and Camille. Instead, Barras lets Zucchini spill the beans immediately, and the payoff is an awkward, sincere form of friendship. Even though the film is animated, there’s a realism to its emotional beats.
The resolution in My Life as a Zucchini is natural, albeit unexpected. Zucchini and Camille have an opportunity to leave the orphanage, and the news is met with resentment. Simon is harsh to Zucchini and Camille, and there is moment where he explains his reasons, mixing hope and sorrow. Most films for children create easy stories. That choice is borne out of cynicism, since the implication is that kids cannot “get” complexity or nuance. My Life as a Zucchini is a rebuke of that idea, and the feelings behind it are uncommonly well-observed. Kids don’t always need talking animals for entertainment. The more challenging, rewarding goal is to meet children halfway, seeing them without judgment for who they are.
My Life as a Zucchini opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.