The boy’s given name is Icare, the French version of Icarus, which has some pretty heavy mythological connotations. That may be why he prefers to be called Courgette (Zucchini). It’s more down to earth. He spends his time flying a homemade kite from the window of an attic room decorated with his mother’s empty beer cans. There are quite a few of those. Zucchini’s father, whose likeness decorates the kite, is long gone, and an unfortunate accident soon removes Zucchini’s mother from the picture.
Zucchini, who is 9, is sent to a group home in the countryside, where he falls in with other abused, neglected and abandoned children. Perhaps because “My Life as a Zucchini,” directed by Claude Barras and based on a book by Gilles Paris, comes from France (and Switzerland), the orphanage is a place of kindness rather than terror. The French republican imagination assumes that institutions are benevolent. Wickedness resides in individuals, in this case the parents whose failures and outright crimes have damaged the innocence of Zucchini and his new friends.
Also, because “My Life as a Zucchini” is an animated film — a loving work of stop-motion cartoon handicraft and an Oscar nominee for Best Animated Film — it is more charming than grim. The orphan at large in the world is a fixture of folklore and literature as well as social-service case files, and Barras’s film, with its bigheaded, asymmetrical modeling-clay figures and off-kilter picture-book backdrops, explores a harsh situation with gentle whimsy.
Still, a bit of caution may be in order for parents. While nothing shown onscreen is graphic or disturbing, the movie is frank about the way the characters have been treated and also about their natural curiosity regarding the adult world. Viewers who have read contemporary young-adult literature will be able to handle it, though their parents may feel uncomfortable at times. Children of Zucchini’s age or younger might be freaked out.
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The point of the story, in any case, is not horror but healing. It’s a bittersweet celebration of friendship and empathy, as Zucchini makes peace with a bully named Simon and develops a crush on a newcomer named Camille. There is an enchanting ski trip, a smattering of pranks and misunderstandings and a touch of suspense, all rendered in expressive and imaginative visual detail. The animation technique is in some ways cruder than the digital dazzle that kids see all the time, but also more soulful. The round, wide-eyed faces of the orphans are not as perfectly detailed as those of their counterparts in some of this movie’s Oscar rivals, but they are enigmatic and individual in ways that are hard to forget.
Voices: Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Paulin Jaccoud, Michel Vuillermoz.
Director: Claude Barras.
Screenwriters: Céline Sciamma, Germano Zullo, Claude Barras, Morgan Navarro.
A GKids release. Running time: 70 minutes. Suggestive material, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema. Two versions of the film are being shown: The French-language original with English subtitles and an English-language dubbed version.