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My Life As A Zucchini (2016)

Nine-year-old Icar- better known by the nickname of Zucchini (or Courgette in the original version) lives alone with his mother. When she unexpectedly passes away, a kindly policeman named Raymond takes the youngster to a home full of kids like him. At first, he struggles to fit in but over time he's able to make friends and find acceptance and true happiness for the first time.

Claude Barras's stop-motion feature is based on a book by Gilles Paris. The film made its world debut at last year's Cannes Film Festival and went on to wow the festival circuit, eventually making its US premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It has been nominated for numerous awards including an Oscar, a Golden Globe, an Annie Award and three Cesars.

My Life As A Zucchini makes it clear from the get-go that this is not your average family-friendly animated movie. Early on, Icar is shown living alone in a dingy apartment with his alcoholic mother. His life is pretty bleak- the poor kid is seen building towers out of empty beer cans. The children's home he moves to is no paradise either. Although the staff are all shown to be caring and good-hearted souls, Zucchini has to cope early on with the resident bully, Simon.

The film doesn't give you a sugar-coated and rose-tinted view of childhood or the world at large. The reality of a children's home is that each child has a tragic story of bereavement, illness or abandonment. Barras is not afraid to show the reality of this situation.

In other ways too, there is a sense of truth in the way that children are depicted. Their frank discussions of (their childlike understanding of) sex will raise an eyebrow, and goes a long way to explaining that surprising PG-13 rating.

The surprisingly dark nature of the subject matter contrasts nicely with the visual style, which is not a million miles away from the style you would expect from a more traditional children's television series or film. It's connected more to the more child-friendly and cozy European tradition of stop-motion (typified by Aardman) rather than the altogether creepier American tradition typified by Laika or Henry Sellick.  Yet, a  closer look at the design reveals dark rings around character's eyes hinting at the darkness beneath the service. Even more subtly, several of the children are shown to have scars- a visual and physical clue that these kids are mentally damaged by their experiences.

Despite the serious subtext, that shouldn't be taken to mean that this is a tough watch... far from it. A strain of melancholy runs throughout, but there's plenty of joy and warmth to be found too. Eventually, Icar comes to be accepted by his peers, and even Simon is revealed to be far from the unpleasant person he appeared to be. For the first time, he begins to find happiness, particularly with the arrival of a girl his own age named Camille. The moments where these unfortunate children are just allowed to let loose and act like kids are some of the film's most delightful moments.

With a modest running time of only just over an hour, the film has the courage of its convictions and keeps it low-key. The kids don't go off on some grand adventure, or have to save the world, or even put on a concert to save the Rec Center. There's  a climax or sorts, but the drama here is down-to-earth and based in the reality of the situation. Really, it's more about the characters than anything else.

The GKIDS produced English dub is a fine addition to the film, chiefly thanks to some smart casting and solid directing. The child cast do a good job, managing to be sympathetic without crossing over to sickly-sweet or cloying. The adult cast is universally superb, with Nick Offerman bringing particular warmth to the character of Raymond.

My Life As A Zucchini is a remarkable debut animated feature from Claude Barras. Funny and warm, yet startlingly honest, this is a beautiful film no fan of animation should miss.

FORMATSTheatrical [24th February 2017 US, May 5th UK]
FROM GKIDS Films/ Soda Pictures
1hr 10 mins

*This review contains sponsored links from Precious Little Ones*