“My Life as a Zucchini” Elevates the Power of Animation

By Matthew Holman, Contributing Writer

“My Life as a Zucchini” is as strange as the title might propose.  The French-Swiss animated film’s animator Claude Barras is currently nominated for an Academy Award — and this is just his debut for feature-length projects.  

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The film follows its titular character’s journey adapting to life in an orphanage after his mother passes away, befriending other orphans along the way.  With a stop-motion style, its characters have absurdly round, bulging eyes and ears that look like they’ve been dusted by Hot Cheetos. Matching this wacky appearance are the personalities of Zucchini and his friends — examining them on the cusp of becoming pre-teens, Barras’ kids have hilariously overinflated ideas on what sexual intercourse is, still ripe with the immaturity to moon adults and get into other hooligan acts.

Stranger than all of this, however, is the serendipity found in the narrative; for how cartoon-y the world appears, “Zucchini” touches upon fringes of growing up rarely captured in animation and vividly shows the social issues cartoons can touch upon.  This is most effectively conveyed with the film’s cast of characters.

To use the protagonist as evidence, Zucchini is sent to the orphanage after his mother’s death.  Although this is played as tragedy, there is a stinging reality behind the scene — his mother was an abusive alcoholic and his father abandoned them for another woman. In many ways, the orphanage was a healthier home for him.  Barras does not let his audience forget these truths, as Zucchini keeps a beer can and a kite decorated with a doodle of his father as a superhero as striking mementos of his past.

It soon becomes evident that rough beginnings are not unique to Zucchini. In a provocative scene, he learns from a friend the myriad of reasons his friends ended up in the orphanage.  Here, the film doesn’t shy away from discussing coming from backgrounds of drug abuse, deportation, murder, racism and implied pedophilia.  Minutes earlier, the quirks each one of the kids were defining their superficial cartoon persona; after this, they transform into fascinating portraits of child psychology.

The drab and perhaps even depressing reality of the children’s backstories give a dark taint the delightful and bright visual quality of the film.  But the detailed and cutesy animation is not a facade that simply jars with the dark social themes the film flirts with, but rather as a way of elevating the story. Throughout its 66-minute runtime, “Zucchini” never becomes emotionally overwhelming or downright depressing. Rather, every shot is blistering with warmth.  When this collides with the deeper themes it explores, it can create several instances that are downright incredibly moving.  

In that same breath, “Zucchini” can also be argued as elevating what animation is capable of exploring in its narratives.  Under the false criteria that animated films are made predominantly for children, Zucchini” seems to find a perfect balance of entertaining children and revolving around being children.  Its adorable looking characters exist in a world where they have fully developed issues and desires; these can be hard to swallow, but that’s life.  

This is an unfortunately rare virtue subjugated for toilet humor and spectacle in most animated features for children.  “Zucchini” has these elements too, but it also has a living, breathing soul comprised of raw reality that makes it one of the most satisfying hours of animation in recent memory.

Email Matthew Holman at film@nyunews.com.

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