My Life as a Zucchini.

My Life as a Zucchini (original title: Ma Vie de Courgette) was one of the five nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and the shortest of the nominated movies at just 66 minutes. It’s a stop-motion animation film with exaggerated, absurd-looking characters, boasting a wonderful story that strikes a perfect balance between sweetness and the sad reality beneath. (I saw the film in French, with English subtitles, but there is now an English version in theaters too, with Ron Swanson providing the voice of Raymond.)

Zucchini is the nickname of the main character, the orphan Icare, whom we meet at the beginning of the film in awful circumstances: He’s the neglected child of an alcoholic mother, apparently friendless, with only a kite and his collection of his mother’s discarded beer cans to keep him company. She sits in her living room all day, drinking and yelling at the television, but dies a few minutes into the film in an accident that Zucchini caused, which sends him to the orphanage by way of the cop Raymond’s office. At the orphanage, he meets the other kids who’ll soon become his friends, including Simon, the bully with a good heart beneath his exterior, and eventually Camille, the new girl with whom Zucchini falls in love.

Every one of these kids is there for some awful reason. Alice is there because her father molested her and is in jail. Bea is there because her mother was deported to Africa while Bea was in school. (Sound familiar?) Simon’s parents are drug addicts. There’s so much sadness underneath this story that it’s remarkable the film feels so light, but the script gives us everything through the eyes of the children, and it’s a world in which I wanted to spend so much more time. And how could you not care about these kids? The characters are all realistic – not in appearance, with their gigantic heads and arms that nearly reach the floor, but in conception and in their reactions to their circumstances. Even the rough stuff is played for laughs without diminishing the harsh reality beneath; for example, Simon is the only one who knows anything about sex (referred to just as “the thing”), but it’s because he saw pornographic films his parents would watch. It’s awful on its face, but his child’s understanding of what happened on screen is written so perfectly.

Squad goals
Zucchini’s motley crew.

While My Life as a Zucchini is an animated film, it’s not for kids. My daughter is ten, and I’m glad she passed on going with me, because I think the reasons the kids are in the orphanage would have upset her. (The sex talk would have just embarrassed her.) And while I smiled and laughed through most of the film, I was always aware of the sadness beneath the surface. Even the ending, which I won’t spoil except to say that it’s a happy one, still reminds you of the bleak situation these kids – who are in what I can only assume is the greatest orphan home in the world – face. They will always feel, as Simon said, that there was no one left to love them. Mining heart and humor from such fearsome material, based on a French-language book by Gilles Paris, is an impressive reminder of the power of a great work of fiction, whether book or movie, live-action or animated. My Life as a Zucchini can’t match the technical mastery of Oscar winner Zootopia, but its story is far more powerful.

Quick endnotes: If you see the movie, look for an homage to Spirited Away in the graffiti on the wall around the Les Fontaines orphanage very early in the film. Also, be sure to stay through the end credits (at least in the French version) for an absolutely precious vignette from the audition of the child who voiced Zucchini.

Long Way North.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t release a shortlist of nominees for Best Animated Feature, instead simply listing all eligible films for a given year, with the 2016 list comprising 22 titles, five of which were eventually nominated. That’s how I stumbled on Long Way North, which is free to stream via Amazon Prime; directed by one of the assistants from the amazing 2009 film The Secret of Kells, Long Way North is a very old-fashioned sort of animated film, made in 2D Flash with a traditional feel and a strong, simple story for all ages. (You can also buy/rent it on iTunes).

Sasha is our heroine, the headstrong daughter of an ambitious Russian diplomat in the late 19th century, but after making a rather poor impression at her debutante ball, she chooses to run away from home to find out what happened to her adventurer grandfather, whose supposedly unsinkable ship never returned from an attempt to sail the Northeast Passage by way of the North Pole. She ends up on a merchant ship of tough guys who agree to search for her grandfather’s ship in hopes of collecting the enormous reward out for it, and, of course, she has to save the day through her courage and cleverness in figuring out where to look.

The movie succeeds on two core levels – the look and the story. The 2D rendering gives the movie a real old-school, almost comic-book feel, enhanced by the lack of contour lines in the film, giving the images a layered look, like paper or fabric pasted on backgrounds. In an era where we expect to be dazzled by animation – look at this year’s Oscar winner Zootopia, with its absurdly realistic rendering of animal fur, or Best Animated Short winner Piper‘s rendering of water – Long Way North delights with its minimalism. It’s a throwback in a good way, with an animation ethos like that of The Triplets of Belleville, where simplicity is given to us as an alternative to the near-perfection of Pixar. Once Sasha gets out of her parents’ dank mansion and into the world, the pictures explode with vibrant colors and sweeping fills that look painted on canvas.

The story is the real selling point in Long Way North, as it takes the coming-of-age framework and gives it a few more adult twists, even darker ones as Sasha and the crew face real life-or-death struggles as they approach the North Pole. Sasha is the center of the entire story and the only fully-realized character in the film, but her arc is more than just “spoiled kid meets adversity” or “child never gives up on dreams.” You know she’s not going to die in the Arctic, but the writers succeed in making her path from home to the Pole and back again matter in a way that gives us drama and tension without feeling forced, while also striking the right balance between rewarding Sasha’s blind faith in her grandfather and making her feel the consequences of the risks she’s taken.

The script itself has some really silly, avoidable mistakes in it. After an accident aboard the ship, one of the sailors rues the loss of all of their penicillin … which wasn’t discovered until about forty years after the time of this film. One scene has a character giving Sasha CPR, even though that technique was also decades away from invention. The Northeast Passage itself had already been sailed before the time of the story as well, by Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, after several partial expeditions by Russian sailors. There’s even a glitch where the title of a book that’s part of the plot changes (by one word). It’s all rather sloppy, which is jarring in a film that looks so clean.

My daughter is a fan of any film that has a female protagonist, especially one who saves the day through cleverness or perseverance, and she loved Long Way North even though the opening exposition is a little confusing. I was more drawn in by the lush feel of the film at first, and didn’t find myself as caught up in the story as she was until the first third or so was over, and Sasha was in the small port town where she boards the mercenary ship. I would probably still recommend this over The Red Turtle, which was nominated for the Oscar over Long Way North, because it’s so much more accessible, with a better literal story (instead of TRT‘s more metaphorical one), and a brighter feast for the eyes as well. And in a related story, I’m hoping to catch My Life as a Zucchini, the only one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature this year I haven’t seen yet, when it plays here in Wilmington this weekend.

Le Havre.

I’ve got a short post on ESPN.com today for Insiders, covering the top age-25 players in MLB.

I only found Le Havre, a 2011 French-language film from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, because it appeared on Roger Ebert’s list of his top 20 films of that year, of which I’ve now seen nine and will eventually see at least one more. Ebert noted the film’s major flaw, an absurd ending that bears no connection to the remainder of the film, as if it were a trifle (calling it “certainly satisfying”), but that plot twist took a film that danced on the edge of cute right over into fairy-tale twee.

Le Havre, no relation to the board game and app of the same name, tells the story of an aging French shoe-shiner, Marcel Marx, who discovers an 11-year-old African refugee, Idrissa, hiding in the waters of the city’s harbor. The police are engaged in a comical manhunt for this harmless child, and Marcel, now alone in his house as his wife is in the hospital with a serious illness, decides to take Idrissa in and protect him from the authorities, out of what I presume is pity or empathy for the boy’s plight. Marcel’s neighbors just barely tolerate him at the film’s beginning, but between his wife’s poor health and his caper with Idrissa, the neighbors conspire with Marcel to hide the boy and eventually to smuggle him out of the country to his ultimate destination, London. Meanwhile, Marcel’s wife, Arletty, won’t allow anyone to tell him how serious her condition is, with the doctor originally saying there’s no hope but a miracle, because Marcel is just a child in a man’s body.

Kaurismäki’s directorial style provokes discomfort through lingering shots of expressionless faces, often staring at or just past the camera, as well as closeups that get a little too close. The plot couldn’t be any simpler, and no characters beyond Marcel get any kind of deeper development; even Idrissa is shown to be a perfectly polite and articulate Gabonese boy who speaks French fluently and whose only real flaw is that he doesn’t like to stay shut up in Marcel’s house all day, risking detection and capture. The one neighbor who doesn’t play along, reporting Idrissa’s whereabouts three times to the police, never gets a name, much less a motivation – racism? xenophobia? general douchebaggery? – for his betrayal of Marcel’s secret. Arletty, played quite obviously by a non-native speaker of French (the Finnish actress Kati Outinene, whose French is proper but toneless with an unnatural rhythm), seems to have no purpose in life other than to play housewife to Marcel, and gives no appearance of being happy or in love with him, beyond being terrified that he’ll be unable to cope without her.

The film does boast some dry humor, as well as an absurd subplot involving the musician “Little Bob” (played by Italian blues-rock singer Roberto Piazza), while Jean-Pierre Darroussin offers subtle homages to Inspector Clouseau in his performance as Inspector Monet, hot (or tepid) on the trail of Idrissa. But the film, while cute for its amusing parts, isn’t funny enough to be a straight comedy, and isn’t serious enough to have a point beyond, well, be kind to the less fortunate, there but for the grace of God, and so on. Had the film ended on a less incongruous note, it might have felt like a fable, cute and funny but with a greater theme that forgives its cuteness. Instead, it ends with nonsense, an ending that would feel tacked-on if it wasn’t dominated by a greater feeling of falseness, kind of like opening door #2 to find that you just traded a new car for a pair of goats.