Thanks to Sunshine Cinema, I’ve finally managed to see every Oscar-nominated animated feature, and I couldn’t be more satisfied with the diversity of this year’s list of contenders: a deliciously bizarre experimental fairy tale, an Eastern mythology-inspired fantasy epic, a buddy comedy with an animal kingdom twist, a more traditional (but no less excellent) musical… and the film I saw today, My Life as a Zucchini, a quiet, slice-of-life coming of age drama that proves there’s more to the medium of stop motion than simply spectacle.
Like Laika’s beautifully-crafted and technically accomplished Kubo and the Two Strings, Zucchini explores themes of family and loss. But whereas Kubo is primarily concerned with the sweep and grandeur of its hero’s external struggles—from sword fights on storm-tossed ships to battles against giant skeletons—Zucchini finds conflict in the subtle details of activities as mundane as eating in a crowded cafeteria.
The film’s dedication to observing its characters’ inner lives and emotions serves the story well. In the opening scenes, we watch as a tragic accident robs the nine year-old protagonist of his neglectful, alcoholic mother. A sympathetic policeman takes him to a home for orphans and castoffs, where, in an unexpectedly happy turn of events, he discovers what it means to be loved for the first time. As the local bully bitterly notes, all of the young residents have suffered terrible abuse and witnessed horrors far beyond their comprehension—and yet, they persevere by finding comfort in their friendship and camaraderie. Even though the children hide numerous physical scars and grapple with the harsh reality that they’re too old to hope for adoption, Zucchini isn’t a movie about despair; it’s about overcoming that despair and learning to enjoy starting indoor snowball fights, or wearing silly costumes, or falling in love.
All that being said, how does My Life as a Zucchini stack up against its fellow Academy Award nominees? Honestly… it’s impossible to choose a clear favorite; Zootopia, Moana, Red Turtle, Kubo, and Zucchini are all masterpieces for different reasons. And I think that’s the best possible outcome: whichever one of these films takes home the big prize tomorrow night, animation enthusiasts/fanatics will be the real winners.
[Originally written February 25, 2017.]