When we meet Zucchini he is decorating a kite in his attic hideout. His blue-pastel outlined eyes watch dreamily as he lets the kite loose through the attic window. Soon after he walks around the home collecting empty beer cans. These two tokens are crucial objects in this young boy’s life and in his story. Even though the meaning behind them are revealed at different points in the story, the attachment Zucchini has to each is obvious. They’re his lifeline in many ways though there is no hint of the sadness that will soon dampen the lively, colorful film.
My Life as a Zucchini, based on a book by french author Gilles Paris, has a narrative that is drowning in darkness despite its uplifting sentiment. Zucchini, our main character, lives with his drunk of a Mom. After she threatens to spank him an accident occurs and his mother is left dead. Now without either of his parents he is brought to an orphanage full of kids even more broken than he is. It’s got all the style and angst of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie but with the real world struggles of Short Term 12. Clearly this is a little more mature than the usual animated-feature target audience are accustomed to but its message and theme are moving and honest despite its intentionally exaggerated design. Still it deals with these heavy topics with a lighter tone. Its gags involve childish imagination and play from water balloons to an impromptu EDM dance number.
Despite the dramatic opening of the film not a lot happens. It’s not particularly driven by plot but, instead, is driven by the relationships and connections these characters make. This is not surprising once realizing that great French writer/director, Céline Sciamma, co-wrote the screenplay. She is known for her day-in-the-life dramas that feel more naturalistic and thus more tragic in their urgency than most films. This is particularly important to Zucchini and our other misfits who have lost almost everything they have and find care and kindness in one another. As fellow orphan and initial bully, Simon, says as Simon says, “We’re all the same. There’s nobody left to love us.” It takes a lot to show your scars and sometimes you can’t even help it.
The stop-motion is exquisite and detailed in each character design and moment. Despite the unconventional design, the coloring and claymation accentuate and develop an emotional depth and distinction to each of the characters. The orphanage features about seven children all of which feel like individuals and all of whom feel whole despite their equally competing arcs.Though the individual characters and locations have the specific claymation feel the wider expanse of the camera reveals a more cartoonish, computer-generated looking environment that invites a compelling contrast within the film.
My Life as a Zucchini will break a lot of hearts with its intimate look at loss and sadness. It will rekindle any despondency with its charming love story and message of healing. It is crafted in a way that engages both young and old while dealing with its subjects with respect and empathy. The stop-motion brings a dazzling new voice to the often John Green level angst years. Whether it be the snowy mountains or the intricately composed bedrooms, the design has a lot hidden in it, but just as much enjoyment in plain sight. Be sure to watch through the credits for what seems to be a stop-motion reenactment of the main actor, Gaspard Schlatter’s, audition. It’s absolutely adorable.