Monday, February 20, 2017

Dark-horse pick for Best Animated Feature: Claude Barras' MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI

Once in awhile, amidst the Oscar-nominated. blockbuster animation movies from the big studios, can be found a small, foreign gem. So it is again this year, with the nomination of MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI, the Swiss film directed by Claude Barras, with a screenplay co-written by that wonderful French filmmaker Céline Sciamma. The unusual thing this year, regarding the nominations for Best Animated Feature Film, is that three of the five movies are of this smaller variety: what you might call animated "art" films.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a simply gorgeous, rapturous piece of animation, in which, unfortunately, the vivid style is undercut by the film's somewhat meagre and occasionally clichéd content. I have not seen the other smaller film, The Red Turtle, nor have I watched Disney's nod to feminism, Moana, but I found its Zootopia one of the wittiest and non-stop enjoyable mainstream animation endeavors I've yet viewed -- with a much-needed message about equality and opportunity to impart to this dreadful Trump time, as well.

But back to that Zucchini:  M. Barras' fine accomplishment (the filmmaker is shown above) in this little delight of claymation animation is to turn the usual clichés of the tale of the orphans' life on their head so that we see things in quite a different manner.  Instead of an uncaring bureaucracy that shovels those "wards of the state" into dreary, unpleasant circumstances, here it is the caretakers of the orphans who care the most -- from the head of the orphanage and its workers to the kindly policeman (below, right) who is the first responder on the scene of the accident that renders our little hero, known as Zucchini, an orphan.

Indeed, it is an actual blood relative of another of the orphans who proves the film's major villainess. Oliver Twist (in any of its many incarnations), this ain't. As seems more and more true with each passing year, the wonders that can be done with animated characters to make them emotionally galvanizing are put to amazing use here. Barras' claymation effects are alternately moving and quite funny -- and always richly rendered.

The story tacks our hero's life once his alcoholic mother dies and he is placed in the care of that orphanage, among a small group of children, each of whom is rendered with fine specificity and individuality. Zucchini himself (above) is a lovely creation, as is the young orphan girl, Camille (below, left), who soon joins the crew.

But is is the not-so-typical bully, Simon (below), who quietly and gently takes over as the most special and interesting character. Here, too, Barras and Sciamma upend the usual clichés to create a young boy who will move you beyond expectation.

Kindness and generosity seem in such short supply these days that My Life as a Zucchini immediately takes its place as an arbiter of what might occur, should government begin to wisely and kindly care for its citizens. As seen here, Switzerland seems like some sort of heaven. And the USA? Well, we can dream, can't we?

The movie, distributed by GKIDS in both its original French language with English subtitles and a new (and very good) dubbed-in-English version, runs just 67 minutes. It opens this Friday, February 24, in New York City and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt, and in Vancouver at the Vancity Theater. In the weeks to come it will hit cities all across the country. To view the many currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed, click here and scroll down.

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