The heartbreaking My Life as a Zucchini (2016) makes viewers care deeply for little models of children, and that’s no mean feat. The stop-motion animation, which looks like Henry Selick and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) but feels more like an anime by Hayao Miyazaki, is set in a children’s home. The beauty of this sad movie is that it’s tinged with a realistic kind of hope that’s grounded in the attainable rather than dreams.
Director Claude Barras and screenwriter Céline Sciamma, adapting the book of the same name by French author Gilles Paris, present childhood in a complex, accurate way – the children are neither too innocent nor too experienced – and the result rings true. The film is quietly disturbing, and it will leave even the most hard-hearted members of the audience in tears.
Zucchini accidentally kills his unloving alcoholic mother and is removed to a small children’s home by the friendly police officer Raymond. The owners of the children’s home are kind and have the best interests of the kids at heart, but that can’t make up for the feelings of loss and alienation experienced by the tiny residents.
Zucchini befriends Simon, a slightly older boy whose father is in prison, and life settles into a dreary rhythm. Then the cool Camille, who’s been living with her nasty aunt, arrives on the scene, and the little gang’s days become exciting and fun. But Camille’s aunt is scheming to get her back, as she comes with a hefty government stipend.
Orphanages and children’s homes are usually wicked places in movies, but the opposite is true here. The evil and cruelty that torment the children are due to the failings of the parents, who are child abusers, drunkards, criminals and drug addicts.
Barras has said that he intended the home to be a tribute to all the social workers who do their best to care for children. The skill of conveying children’s emotions is “to manage to think like a child”, he said, noting that he tried to make the film accessible to adults and young children without simply adding extra themes for the older viewers.
The characters are made in the “big-head” animation style, which was chosen because large faces make it easier to express emotions. Barras also referenced the offbeat look of French animation Le Manège Enchanté, which was recut for the popular 1960s British children’s programme The Magic Roundabout, as a major influence on the film’s style. The personality of Zucchini was influenced by François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and numerous movies by Miyazaki.
My Life as a Zucchini will be screened on Friday and August 3 at The Metroplex, in Kowloon Bay, as part of the French Friday: Annecy programme.