Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Dark side of childhood explored with humor, charm, in 'Zucchini'

Childhood is not for sissies.

Not all children are lucky enough to be raised by a loving family in a safe home. But marginalized kids get their own story in the eloquent and affecting animated feature, My Life as a Zucchini.

Directed by Claude Barras, this Oscar-nominated feature is a gently told tale that faces the dark side of childhood, yet offers the possibility of redemption through humor, friendship, and love.

A Swiss-born animation filmmaker who works in France, Barras based his story on an adult novel about kids in crisis written by Gilles Paris. Barras makes it more family-friendly by focusing on the solidarity of children together in a group home after the worst of their individual crises has passed.

The protagonist is a 9-year-old boy who prefers to be called "Zucchini," the nickname bestowed by his mother. She's an embittered single mom who drinks too much beer and neglects him, when she's not threatening to thrash him.

But she's the devil he knows, so when she is suddenly out of the picture (a surprisingly sobering event that happens in the first ten minutes), Zucchini is full of dread to suddenly be on his own.

A soft-hearted policeman named Raymond takes an interest in the boy and delivers him to a group home for kids who have lost their families. Their parents are drug addicts, or prison inmates, or mentally ill, or otherwise too incapacitated to care for them. One boy's mom has been deported. As another boy explains to Zucchini, "There's no one left to love us.

Plot complications include the arrival of a new girl, Camille, whose family history has been particularly awful. Yet her response is to treat the other kids with extra empathy, so she is soon beloved by all — especially the smitten Zucchini.

Despite its serious subtext, the film has a playful, often joyous tone as the kids explore their world and search for their places in it. Zucchini likes to draw, and his crayon portraits of the other kids, and their activities add an extra layer of humor and charm.

Other visual elements in the film are more subtle, but just as rich. The headmistress has paintings by Joan Miro and Paul Klee on the wall behind her desk. And it makes perfect sense that Camille — all too ready to escape the cocoon of her past — is shown reading Kafka's Metamorphosis.

Barras' technique is a sophisticated update of classic stop-motion clay animation. Each character is originally modeled in clay and painted, then an articulated puppet is made of each character, and coated in silicon, which is rendered to approximate the surface and texture of clay on camera. But expressive details like lips, eyelids, and eyebrows, in various positions, are molded in clay and painstakingly applied to be shot the old-fashioned way: one frame at a time.

It's a laborious process — especially for a small, independent studio like Barras' with only ten staff animators. But the result is obviously a labor of love.

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