Over the last decade, much has been made of Pixar's ability to insert adult drama into child-centric animation. Think of the debilitating Up intro or Wall-E's wordless sequences. Yet not even the great Pixar has the guts to open a movie with a young boy unintentionally killing his mother.
If that sounds like a downer, don't worry: My Life as a Zucchini isn't all gloom. The Swiss-French stop-motion animated film—directed by Claude Barras and nominated for a 2017 Oscar—just doesn't shirk at providing the gory backstory for its cast of characters. We meet the titular Zucchini, actually named Icare, as he tiptoes past his oft-drunken mom only to accidentally cause the aforementioned death. He's soon deposed by Raymond, a police officer who takes a liking to Zucchini and promises to visit his new home.
This turns out to be an orphanage, populated by several other children with rough family lives. Again, Barras doesn't flinch: the kids openly discuss how their parents were murderers (or victims), child molesters, immigrants who were deported. They're keenly aware of their family-less state yet still young and without filters, which makes their honesty and openness on dark subjects both comedic and genuine.
One day, a girl named Camille shows up and Zucchini quickly falls in love. Their courtship feels romantic and necessary; they come to rely on each other quickly, but out of need as much as affection. This, of course, rankles some of the other kids, who've suddenly found a home but fear losing another series of loved ones to events outside their control. And when extended family members and new caretakers threaten to break up the orphans, they're forced to process this information—and offer resistance—in such a way that sympathy for their plight becomes pure joy at their successes.
At only 70 minutes long, some might deride Zucchini as a puffed-up short. But in reality, it emphasizes how much fluff so many movies are stuffed with. Barass and his writers (Céline Sciamma, Germano Zullo, and Morgan Navarro) cover in brief spurts what other filmmakers take hours to get through. Part of this is the brilliant animation; every movement is slight but insanely detailed, and Barass uses different angles to make his models and their world feel wholly real. Something as simple as staring at the ceiling, love bursting from a pair of eyes, conveys a message that actual actors couldn't summon as easily.
And even better, they do it without relying on sentimentality. What Zucchini does share with Pixar's best is a belief that audiences will pick up on story cues and emotional moments without a waving banner and a flashing light. There are no big speeches or overly dramatic scenes; just the occasional outbursts and intimate exchanges of abandoned people searching for a home. We come to love Zucchini, Camille, and their friends because they're lovable, not because they're the main characters in a movie we're watching. Too often, writers and directors rely on the latter; not here.
Despite some dark undertones, there's nothing awful waiting for the kids in Zucchini. They've had rough starts to their lives, but the orphanage is a place of love, not fear, and the one police officer we see is essentially the film's hero. As such, Barass reinforces that family is not a one-and-done scenario; though the trauma of losing the original is staggering, there is hope for round two and beyond. In the process, he happens to have crafted one of the most charming, wonderful movies in years.