The Oscar-nominated stop-motion animated film “My Life as a Zucchini” is a sweet, colorful coming-of-age story with some very dark places. While the large-headed, big-eyed clay characters are adorable 10-year-olds, they have suffered terribly and live in a group foster home. The seriousness of the kids’ problems balances the sentiment of the rest of the story beautifully, and to see complex relationships rendered in such a fanciful, visual way is marvelous.
Zucchini is the nickname given to young Icar by his alcoholic mother — the same alcoholic mother Zucchini accidentally kills when she tries to drunkenly climb the ladder to his attic hideaway to beat him for making too much noise, and he slams the door shut and she falls to her death. The reason he made too much noise was he was stacking up her empty beer cans to make a tower for fun, and it fell over. After she dies he keeps one of the beer cans as a memento. All this to say, it’s dark.
Nick Offerman voices the kindly policeman who helps put Zucchini’s affairs in order after his ordeal and delivers him to a group foster home. The adults in charge are sensitive and kind, and the ensuing dramas are emotional. With the events that have led the children to their foster home, there is no need for further embellishment. Even though it’s a stop-motion cartoon about an orphan named after a vegetable who accidentally kills his mother, “My Life as a Zucchini” is also understated.
As Zucchini settles into his new life, he is thrown for a loop by the arrival of a new resident, a cool girl who becomes his first crush. She is smart and brave and reads Kafka, and all the kids adore her. This tender Swiss-French cartoon takes so many tried and true plotlines and makes them beautiful and new.
Indeed, the animation makes them literally beautiful. See the wide-eyed orphans on their overnight trip to go snow skiing, and their multicolored mop tops look even more stunning against their snowy backdrop. The plot has enough bright spots that the sad parts are bearable. But there is enough sadness lurking in these kids that every pleasant thing they experience feels like a relief, and a genuine revelation.
“Sad cartoon” might not sound like your favorite category of film, but this colorful treatment of a bleak subject works for many reasons. The unrealistic format provides a level of abstraction for the material. When you have purple-haired clay figures going through these travails, it is more palatable and spares the viewer of the gritty physical details. We are left to more clearly experience the emotional aspects of the film.
Of course, this is also a film for children, albeit older ones. A relationship between two of the (loving, capable) adults at the foster home leads the kids to discuss some of the birds-and-bees mechanics afoot. While the format is kid-friendly, the subject matter is more appropriate for older children, or adults that appreciate the visual beauty and complexity of the stop-motion animation.
Ultimately, this is a family film, both in audience and in subject. “My Life as a Zucchini” sees its main character lose and rebuild a family, and it is a sometimes challenging but warm and rewarding thing to experience. These weird-looking little clay people reach a level of emotional realism many human actors fail to achieve, and your time with them will be very worthwhile.
“My Life as a Zucchini” is currently available to rent.