My Life as a Zucchini (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Meet Courgette and his friends

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It is always delightful to watch simple, sweet animation films like “My Life as a Zucchini”, which was selected as the Official submission of Switzerland for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2017 Academy awards in last year and then was nominated for Best Animation Feature Film Oscar instead early in this year. Rather than merely driven by plot, the film leisurely doles out small, delicate moments to enjoy and appreciate, and I enjoyed how it deftly balances itself between humor and melancholy as effortlessly revealing its big heart.

The opening scene introduces us to our young hero and his unhappy domestic life. Courgette (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter), which means Zucchini in French, is a young boy living with his divorced alcoholic mother, and we see him spending time alone in the attic of his house. As shown from the numerous drawings in the attic, he is a smart, imaginative child, but he is mostly neglected by his mother, and she is going through her another alcoholic day in front of the TV in the living room.

And then one unfortunate incident happens. When a stack of empty beer cans he is trying to build is accidently crumbled, his mother becomes mad because of the resulting noise and then she promptly climbs up to the attic. Scared of his angry mother, he shuts down the attic door upon his mother’s head, and that inadvertently causes his mother’s death. Although it is not entirely his fault, he feels guilty about this, and he also misses his mother although the life with her has not always been happy.

At least, the adults who happen to be around him after his mother’s death genuinely care about him. Raymond (voiced by Michel Vuillermoz), a police officer in charge of this tragic case, is sympathetic to Courgette, and he takes Courgette to an orphanage located outside the city. The orphanage may look modest on the surface, but its staff members are kind and generous, and the other few kids in the orphanage are mostly nice except one boy named Simon (voiced by Paulin Jaccoud).

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Although Courgette initially does not get along well with other kids in the orphanage, he comes to learn that they are also unhappy in each own way. While Simon has been separated from his addict parents, the father of Ahmed (voiced by Raul Ribera) is currently in prison, and Béatrice (voiced by Lou Wick) may never meet her mother who was deported out of the country. In case of Jujube (voiced by Elliot Sanchez), his mother was sent to a mental hospital, and Alice (voiced by Estelle Hennard) looks all the more heartbreaking after Courgette comes to know a bit about her terrible past.

While they all hope that they will have a family someday, it is apparent that they are already a family together, and the film serves us with a number of warm, innocent moments generated among Courgette and his new friends. When a girl named Camille (voiced by Sixtine Murat) comes to the orphanage, Courgette finds himself attracted to her, and there is a poignant moment as these two young kids come to realize that they are not so different from each other as two kids struggling with their respective misfortunes.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Courgette and Raymond grows day by day as Courgette sends letters and pictures to Raymond. When Raymond later visits the orphanage again for checking up Courgette, it is apparent that he has become a father figure Courgette has never had since his father was gone, and they eventually come to spend one weekend together. Although the situation becomes a little problematic as Camille accompanies them for avoiding her greedy, despicable aunt, they all enjoy themselves together, and Courgette and Camille feel like being at home when they come to Raymond’s cozy house, where he has lived alone while growing various plants.

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The mood of the film becomes a little tense later because of Camille’s aunt, but the director Claude Barras, who adapted Gilles Paris’s “Autobiographie d’une Courgette” with his co-writers Céline Sciamma, Germano Zullo, and Morgan Navarro, steadily maintains the overall gentle attitude of his film. Casually rolling along its episodic plot during the short running time (66 minutes), the film takes its time in building up individual scenes, and they are filled with details to notice even though they look plain and simple at first.

Like “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016), “My Life as a Zucchini” is a stop-motion animation film, and I admire the enormous efforts put into every individual shot in the film. The characters may look broad and exaggerated on the whole, but they often feel more emotional than expected as the film gradually immerses us in its world, and that accordingly makes us involved more in the its characters’ emotional matters. At one point, Courgette and his friends happen to spot a mother and her child from the distance, and the following silent moment speaks volume about their thoughts and feelings even though their faces do not seem to signify anything.

Along with recent notable animation films such as “Kubo and the Two Strings”, “The Red Turtle” (2016), “April and the Extraordinary World” (2015), and “Your Name” (2016), “My Life as a Zucchini” provides us something different from usual digital animation films. I think its strong points will be appreciated more by adult audiences, but kids may also enjoy its gentle simplicity, and I’d love to hear opinions from them.
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