‘My Life as a Zucchini’ balances melancholy, whimsy to touching effect

"My Life as a Zucchini" | GKIDS
Grade: B+

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Stop-motion animation creates an atmosphere unlike any other in film. The process of photography — moving figures bit by bit, part by part — leaves one with a sense of calm contemplation. Stop-motion figures rarely burst out into fast-paced action — unless they’re in the high-budgeted “Kubo & the Two Strings” — and they’re rarely too quick to react. In the Oscar-nominated French-Swiss film “My Life as a Zucchini,” this atmosphere is not only at its most evident but also its most effectual. Quiet melancholy and soothing whimsy run through the veins of the film.

“My Life as a Zucchini” follows Icare, who prefers to go by his nickname Courgette (French for “zucchini”), a young boy who is sent to an orphanage to live with other boys and girls who come from unfortunate circumstances. He must confront life without parents and adjust to a home that, at first, seems frightening. But as the story unfolds, Courgette gets closer with the group of kids at the orphanage, eventually becoming a part of their family.

It’s quite clear that this film doesn’t adhere to the typical conventions of films about gangs of young kids. While we’re introduced to the classic bully right when Courgette arrives at the home, the film is quick to humanize him, which plays right into its themes of family and the idea that those with tragic pasts can help each other cope. The story isn’t about the bully versus Courgette, but rather how even a bully can play a part in building a family.

In fact, each character is given an explicit heartbreaking past, from deaths in the family to abuse. In watching this, one can not only understand the characters’ severe timidness, but also how each can eventually open up to one another. Such background distinguishes this animated film as intended for audiences of all ages — it might even be a little too dark for children.

Beyond family, “My Life as a Zucchini” celebrates oddity and weirdness as integral building blocks for connection. A few of the film’s most beautiful moments are the smallest, strangest and most contemplative. When the group takes a trip to go skiing and sledding, the supervisors organize a French electronic music dance party in their cabin. The flashing lights, all-too-enthusiastic DJ and awkward dance moves might seem a bit too over-the-top on a surface level, but, when put into context with the sobering reality of the rest of the film, the moment becomes incredibly heartwarming.

“My Life as a Zucchini” comes in at a sharp 70 minutes. For the first 45 minutes, everything flies by efficiently and effectively. But there’s a moment when one of the children gets taken out of the orphanage by an evil aunt, and the film rushes through the consequences in what otherwise would’ve been potent time to build its themes. “My Life as a Zucchini” seems to speed to its conclusion.

In that conclusion, however, audiences are confronted with the hardest pill to swallow. Some of the children might get adopted and the family may be broken up. But in its fluid and natural progression, the film brings up the idea that perhaps what these children were creating, more so than the family, was a renewed comfort in connection, a way of moving on and confronting the world again.

“My Life as a Zucchini” is one of those rare animated films that goes beyond Pixar’s adult-friendly storytelling. A film such as “Inside Out” may confront loneliness and sadness under the mask of fun adventure story, but “My Life as a Zucchini” tackles mental trauma head on.

The film’s colorful yet simple world and endearingly peculiar character design offer a sense of whimsy and hope, however, as it all comes to a close and enters its meta, refreshing post-credit sequence.

“My Life as a Zucchini” opens at Shattuck Cinema on March 3.

Kyle Kizu is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @kyle_kizu.