My Life as a Zucchini (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Claude Barras’ stop-motion animation “My Life as a Zucchini” manages to accomplish more in its breezy seventy-minute running time than most other pictures, animated or otherwise, with twice the amount of time to tell their stories. And despite its chosen medium, nearly every character comes across so human that we do not feel ready to leave them even though we know in our minds and hearts that it is time. I wish to know how these nine- and ten-year-old orphans would be like as teenagers, as young adults, and as grown individuals who’ve lived.
From its opening sequence, perceptive viewers will recognize that what is in store for us is no ordinary film for children. No, I’m not referring to the wicked sense of humor involving an accidental death. I refer to how, within a scope of seconds, we absorb, quite readily, the details of the Zucchini’s (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter) room, how his drawings look like they could be art of actual kids, the manner in how he handles and plays with his toys, how he turns objects that are not toys into playthings that could be a source of fun. Clearly, we are in the hands of capable, imaginative, and intelligent filmmakers. They understand how a child’s mind works and so they allow us to experience how a child may process the world. It is a deeply humanistic picture.
The conflict is deceptively minimal. One may call it a slice-of-life animated film and that person will not be wrong. We observe the orphans’ every day in the orphanage, how they relate to one another, to adults who work there, and those who visit. They talk about what’s important to them, their dreams, their hopes for the future, what friendship means to them. Sometimes they get into silly fights and other times they show surprising amount of maturity.
It is beautiful how each character is written. For example, I loved how Simon (Paulin Jaccoud) gives us the impression that he is going to be the archetypal bully but, within a few minutes, layers are added onto him—a delightful surprise because it is standard that either this type of character is given no dimension at all or he is given some heart, usually saccharine-flavored—halfway through or at the end of the picture. Credit to the screenwriters—Céline Sciamma, Claude Barras, Germano Zullo, Morgan Navarro—for creating human characters that we can all relate with.
I can stare at its style of animation for ages because there is so much to appreciate. Notice how a character being solemn is not just expressed through silence but also in the way the eyelid falls just a little bit, one’s posture when sitting down, how the camera shows us the back of a character’s head and we are left to imagine its subject’s facial expressions. Details can be found in the orphans rooms, the articles of clothing they wear, how they sport their hair. So much effort is put into this project inside and out.
“Ma vie de Courgette,” based on the novel by Gilles Paris, is clearly cream of the crop and it deserves to be seen by many, across a spectrum of ages and level of maturity, because of its subtle lessons about empathy. In our current world where it is so easy to fear others, this film inspires us to talk to the person next to us and discover where they’re coming from, where they hope to go, and how they intend to get there.