The most egregious mistake of Oscar night was not the incorrect-envelope Best Picture catastrophe -- although that was pretty bad. Happily, the deserving film (“Moonlight”) won in that instance.
No, the biggest disappointment of Oscar night was the result in the Best Animated Feature category, as Disney’s clever but wildly overrated “Zootopia” won over the beautiful French-language feature “My Life as a Zucchini.”
Yes, it’s an odd title, one that sounds much better in its native language (“Ma vie de Courgette”). It’s also a wonderful tremendously moving film about an emotionally wounded little boy, and the family unit that develops at a foster home for orphans.
Such a description makes “Zucchini” sound like a depressing cinematic dirge, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Instead, the startlingly short (66 minutes) feature debut from Swiss filmmaker Claude Barras is funny, always entertaining and visually inventive.
The film opens on a blue-haired, sad-eyed adolescent playing quietly in his somber bedroom. This is the 9-year-old boy known as “Zucchini.” Down below, a woman watches television and drinks beer. We notice that he’s playing with empty beer cans.
After an angry threat of “the spanking of your life,” an accident occurs, and the woman is out of the picture. A good-natured policeman, Raymond, takes an interest in Zucchini’s situation, and brings him to a foster home of orphans.
Here, Zucchini is surrounded by children who have been similarly neglected; as one states, “There’s nobody left to love us.”
The stories are similar. Some the kids’ parents were drug abusers. One saw his mother sent back to Africa. One was sexually abused. The film does a fine job of treating each of the children as an individual, with a unique backstory.
Camille arrives soon after Zucchini, and her story is particularly grim; her father killed her mother, then himself. “She saw it all,” says Simon, the de facto leader of the orphans.
Like Zucchini, Camille is desperate for connection, and soon the two form a bond. A similar bond is formed with the kind policeman, Raymond, and one of the film’s sweetest sequences sees the trio spend a day at the carnival.
Trouble comes with Camille’s aunt, who wants to see the girl live with her. (Camille: “If I have to go back with her, I’ll kill myself.”) Things conclude rather abruptly, but the emotions linger. This is strong, subtle filmmaking on all fronts.
“Zucchini” has a Tim Burton-ish look, but the film marries overt stylization with a sad realism that Burton has never brought to his animated work. Despite the pleasures of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride,” I’m not sure Burton is capable of such an emotional experience.
While “Zucchini” has a childlike innocence, especially in its understanding of how kids cope with abuse, it’s most certainly not for children. Still, it could serve as a particularly strong introduction to foreign-language cinema for tweens and young teenagers.
After all, it’s rare to see a film that truly understands the complexities of childhood. Zucchini, Camille and their friends deeply long for a family, yet they cannot help pushing such feelings away. When Zucchini spots the apartment from the start of the film, he calls it his “home.” He says these words with a believable sense of emotional confusion.
“My Life as a Zucchini” has a reasonably happy ending, and it’s an earned one. This is a truly memorable animated film, and -- predictably -- it is already pegged for an American remake. It would be nice to see that news bring a larger audience to the original.
“My Life as a Zucchini”
3 and 1/2 stars (out of 4)
With the voices of: Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Paulin Jaccoud, and Michel Vuillermoz
Director: Claude Barras
Running time: 66 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements and suggestive material.
The Lowdown: After losing his mother, a young boy is sent to a foster home with other orphans his age where he begins to learn the meaning of trust and true love. In French with English subtitles.