I doubt I was the only person who was absolutely gutted when Walt Disney's loud, obnoxious 'Zootopia' steamrolled the elegiac 'The Red Turtle' (co-produced by Wild Bunch and Studio Ghibli) and 'My Life as a Zucchini' for the Best Animated Feature Film at the 89th Academy Awards.
Thank goodness for the film distribution companies that ensure that smaller animated films like 'When Marnie Was There', 'Ernest & Celestine', 'The Secret of Kells', 'Phantom Boy', 'Window Horses' and 'My Life as a Zucchini' are seen in Australia. Give praise again to directors like Claude Barras, who are a vital breath of fresh air in a creative category stifled by endless computer-animated products churned out by the Pixar and Walt Disney machines.
French screenwriter Céline Sciamma ('Tomboy', 'Girlhood') has adapted the 2002 novel 'Autobiography of a Courgette' by Gilles Paris for this amazing stop-motion animation; with Swiss director Barras making his feature debut.
The story of a nine-year-old orphan named Courgette - French for zucchini - who's sent to a group home after the death of his alcoholic mother, we learn that the blue-haired kid accidentally killed her during one of the matriarch's drunken tantrums.
All is not hopeless for Courgette, though. A cop named Raymond shows him kindness, as does a new girl named Camille. Even the red-haired school bully Simon forges a hard-won connection. "There's nobody left to love us," he says in a moment of quiet, fleeting realisation. Simon matter-of-factly details to Courgette the troubled circumstances of the other orphans, who each respond to their trauma in various ways; Simon is angry, Ahmed wets the bed, Alice is shy. Simon's bluntness when he tells these stories subtly underlines the fact that these children are not shocked by violence anymore. The film does not dwell on the drama of child abuse itself, but rather with the people living in its shadow.
'My Life as a Zucchini' is a film wholeheartedly suitable for children even though so many of its pleasures lie in an appeal to adults and their understanding of pre-teen melancholy.
'My Life as a Zucchini' is a film wholeheartedly suitable for children even though so many of its pleasures lie in an appeal to adults and their understanding of pre-teen melancholy. The film engages with difficult and painful topics such as mortality, child abuse, alcoholism and trauma. Yet far from revelling in misery and testing the limits of the bearable, it instead explores the constructive ways kids can deal with the terrible situations thrust upon them.
While the 66-minute feature superficially resembles a certain strain of preschool programming in its visual style, Barras' stylised stop-motion sets it apart from the glut of CG Pixar cartoon shit, taking its time where digital animation so often tends to be hyperkinetic. The animated characters, most with elongated bodies and pasty ping-pong heads with huge eyes, are beautifully realised.
'My Life as Zucchini' never sacrifices what's true for what's trite and easier to sell. This truly is animation as art.