“We’re all the same. There’s nobody left to love us.”
Given the arduous process of making a stop-motion animated film, most entries in the form have a clear basis for being done in this style. Take Fantastic Mr. Fox, wherein Wes Anderson was able to find a new home for his symmetrical images and affected, deadpan humor. Or look at the films from Laika, such as Coraline or Kubo and the Two Strings. These efforts go for sheer spectacle (though often grounded in human emotion). Each of their stories enhances oddity or widens majesty with the clear effort on display. Stop-motion is clearly having some resemblance of a comeback; one of the most successful current franchises, LEGO, apes the style even though it’s computer generated.
My Life as a Zucchini, the French Oscar nominee for Animated Feature, takes a slightly different path than the aforementioned films. There’s little aesthetic beauty to the world on display, all the better to match a fairly grim premise (that blossoms into an uplifting story). Zucchini, or Courgette in French, suddenly finds himself orphaned when his alcoholic mother meets with a tragically quick and mundane accident. He’s first seen collecting his mom’s beer cans, assembling a tower, and generally attempting to avoid her fits of rage. After the death, it seems like Courgette’s life may only grow worse.
He’s sent to a foster home, and it initially seems like a deeper circle of hell. A bully, Simon, quickly establishes Courgette as his newest target. Luckily, the film doesn’t stay mired in this misery for long. Simon winds up being a more complex individual than he first appears, and relationships are quickly tied between all of the foster kids. Their backstories are similarly wrenching, but for the most part Zucchini uses these individual tales as a lump sum of tragedy that represents many of life’s shortcomings. Everything is upended once again with the arrival of Camille, a new leader for the group and a quietly romantic lifeline for Courgette.
Many details of this may sound familiar, and some of the plot mechanics read as Disney-esque in their embrace of scheming kids taking down plotting adults. There are a few key distinctions, though. Plenty of Disney films deal with death as an abstract concept, with the occurrence of single parenting almost becoming a joke for the studio. Here, though, that heartache is the central point and catharsis is only reached in small pieces rather than climactic adventures. Zucchini gives itself over to scenes of these children struggling to comprehend the horrors they’ve had to experience, and slowly realizing how vital their friendships are in the face of a generally uncaring world.
The other distinction, of course, is the stop-motion. The greatest strength of Zucchini is how well that style is married to the weightier concerns of outcast children and emotional uncertainties. The children are all shaped similarly, with outsized heads wobbling atop thin torsos and string-bean limbs. To a literal extent, this shows undernourishment, like (wisely) unexplained scars hint at physical abuse. But the exaggerated features also show that these kids are outside of the norm, how apart from the rest of the world they must feel. They form a collective with each other based on circumstance and traumatic similarities, but that bond is literalized by their wide, sullen eyes and disproportioned bodies.
The rest of the world surrounding the kids similarly shows off their worldview. Land around the foster home is sparse, occasionally dotted with repetitive trees, or grim buildings. Best of all is the attention given to the tokens each person carries around with them. Courgette totes a beer can that he eventually makes into a gift for Camille. One child has a teddy bear, another a pair of goggles gifted in a rare moment of connection to the outer world. And given Courgette’s affinity for drawing, the film is littered with crude sketches that mirror whatever crises or fortune is taking place at any given time. When he sends letters to the kind police officer who visits regularly, they take the form of pictures rather than text. This enlivens Zucchini from a visual standpoint, but it also expresses how these kids are only just learning to express what’s going on in their warped hearts.
With a runtime only at about an hour, My Life as a Zucchini’s greatest fault is that it winds up feeling a bit slight. As magnetically as one is drawn to these kids, you wish for more time spent in their world, getting to view their healing. Certain relationships, like the friendship between Simon and Courgette, are rushed even if the end result is moving and genuine. Luckily, the animation nearly always makes up for this brevity by packing as much representation of self as possible into each frame. Even though we spend little time with many given characters, we come to know them through their prized possessions or their ticks (the hardest to watch being one girl convinced that every arriving car contains her mother). Even though the look of the film takes some time to adjust to, My Life as a Zucchini uses that disconnect to illuminate how little difference there is between us all. We each suffer through tragedy, and we can only recover with the help of loved ones. It’s a simple lesson, beautifully told in a form deserving of its minor renaissance.