My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)


A snow day is a great day!

(2016) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Will Forte, Erick Abbate, Romy Beckman, Ness Krell, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page, Amy Sedaris, Susanne Blakeslee, Barry Mitchell, Olivia Bucknor, Clara Young, Finn Robbins, JD Blanc, Michael Sinterniklaas, Stephanie Sheh. Directed by Claude Barras

 

What makes a movie a kid’s movie? Is it because the protagonist is a child? Or is it because it’s animated? Maybe the subject matter is less complicated than a film aimed at older audiences? These are all fair questions and while it is generally fairly easy to tell what is a movie meant for the elementary school set and what is not, some films are a little bit harder to gauge.

Icare (Abbate) is a sad, lonely child. He lives with his alcoholic mom in a flat which is littered with empty beer cans that his mom has consumed. His father is long gone. His only joy is flying a kite with a superhero drawn on it – one that perhaps is his notion of who his dad is. On a stormy day, his mother will no longer be able to abuse him any longer .

A kindly cop named Raymond (Offerman) takes Icare to a local orphanage where he declares that his name is Zucchini which is apparently what his mom called him for reasons never explained. As he has so little of her left to remember her by (poignantly he brings an empty beer can with him and his kite – his only two possessions) he insists on being referred to by that sobriquet even though it doesn’t really suit him, as Simon (Beckman), the resident bully, points out while spitefully calling him “Potato” which while cruel is entirely apt.

Most of the kids have a horror story to tell; Ahmed (Mitchell) waits for his deported mom to return, while Alice (Young) was removed from an abusive household and bangs her fork on her plate when she is stressed. Simon himself is the son of criminals who are jailed, leaving him in the orphanage to hope for adoption – although as Simon cynically informs Zucchini whom he eventually learns to respect, the kids are too old to have a chance at adoption.

Into this wacky family of kids comes Camille (Krell) whose father murdered her mother in front of her and then turned the gun on himself. She lives with an aunt (Sedaris) who only keeps her for the stipend the state pays her and is cruel and abusive towards her niece. Zucchini takes a shine to Camille and the two rapidly become inseparable. A field trip to the mountains with married teachers Paul (Forte) and Rosy (Page) only cements that bond. As for Zucchini, he has developed a close relationship with Raymond who is thinking of adopting him and maybe Camille as well. But the Aunt wants to bring back Camille to her house so she can get the government payments again. Will this new family be quashed before it can even be started?

The film is based on a children’s book which is apparently much darker than what is onscreen here; the look of the film is much different than the illustrations that are part of the book as well. This stop motion animated feature has a very European look to it; the big heads but expressive faces, the eerily long bendy arms and the backgrounds that speak of the Alps. It certainly doesn’t look like an American film and maybe that will put off some.

And, like European films that are aimed at children, it refuses to talk down to them. The movie looks at tragedy and doesn’t turn away or sugarcoat it. It allows the children to grieve, to be sad. It allows them to overcome and that is the important message; not that Zucchini had a tough time of it but that he came through it and in doing so was able to trust and love again.

The movie does have some flaws; from time to time I felt myself wondering how much was going to be piled onto Zucchini and let’s face it, there’s a lot. While the kids are a little bit too good to be true for the most part – Simon is the clear exception and even he is basically a decent kid – the adults are damn near Saints other than Zucchini’s mom and Camille’s aunt.

The movie does have the virtue of brevity; the film is only 70 minutes long so even those with the most acute cases of ADHD should be able to sit through the entire length of it. It also has a lot of bright colors that will keep the really little ones engaged. Never underestimate the value of bright colors and simple shapes in keeping the toddlers out of trouble.

The movie is full of moments of genuine emotion without leaving you feeling manipulated; it comes by those moments honestly. You can’t help but feel for these orphans who have been through so much yet are so resilient. Despite his mother’s shortcomings, Zucchini misses her. He feels her absence keenly. Perhaps that is the most human thing about Zucchini after all.

REASONS TO GO: The movie certainly tugs at the heartstrings. For once, the film doesn’t talk down to children. The subject of parental loss is tackled with some sensitivity.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is overly dramatic in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The loss of parents might be a bit more difficult for the young and impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Switzerland’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language film for the 2017 Oscars; while it didn’t make the final short list, it did pick up a nomination for Best Animated Feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pippi Longstocking
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Raw

The Peanuts Movie


Good ol' Charlie Brown and Snoopy.

Good ol’ Charlie Brown and Snoopy.

(2015) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Noah Schnapp, Alex Garfin, Bill Melendez, Kristin Chenoweth, Hadley Belle Miller, Mariel Sheets, Venus Schultheis, Rebecca Bloom, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Noah Johnston, Francesca Capaldi, Anastasia Bredikhina, William Wunsch, Marelik “Mar Mar” Walker, A.J. Tecce, Madisyn Shipman. Directed by Steve Martino

 

When I was growing up, Peanuts was a thing. Charles Schulz created a comic strip that millions of kids related to whether they knew it or not. I always saw myself as Charlie Brown (which some psychiatrists might have had a field day with); something of a perpetual failure, disliked by everyone other than Linus and his little sister Sally, and doomed to be the butt of everyone’s jokes in school. I felt many of those same feelings myself, although I also felt redeemed by Charlie Brown’s sweet nature and inner kindness.

Schulz died in 2000 and while the TV specials – including the classic Christmas and Halloween specials – continue to run annually on network television. The strip is in syndication and while there have been no new Peanuts material since Schulz passed away, this movie intends to introduce the characters to an entirely new audience – while reacquainting them with the audience that has grown up and has children – and in some cases grandchildren – of their own.

Charlie Brown (Schnapp) is one of those kids for whom nothing just ever seems to go right. The object of ridicule for most of his classmates, who refer to him as a blockhead, he wears one shirt and one shirt only – a yellow t-shirt with a black zigzag pattern on the front, and seems to have no hair except for a tuft up front. Still, he’s a good, decent sort and while he has few friends – his neighbor Linus van Pelt (Garfin) is one – he looks after his little sister Sally (Sheets) and his beagle Snoopy (Melendez) who is, perhaps, the most unusual dog ever.

For one thing, Snoopy is writing a novel about his alter ego, the World War I flying ace, perpetually battling his nemesis, the notorious Red Baron who has outdone himself for dastardliness – he’s kidnapped French flying ace Fifi (Chenoweth), a poodle whom the WWIFA has his eye on.

In the meantime, Charlie Brown has his eye on someone too – the Little Red-Haired Girl (Capaldi) who just moved into the neighborhood. He dreams of having a friend who doesn’t know about his record of failure and will like him just for himself. However, as usual, Charlie Brown manages to sabotage himself.

However, his luck is changing. When the class takes a standardized test, Charlie Brown becomes the first kid in school history to answer the questions 100% correct. Suddenly, he becomes – gasp – popular. People think he’s smart. People think he’s special. The adulation becomes a bit more than Charlie Brown can handle, particularly when he discovers that there was a mix-up in the scores.

This is very much like the Peanuts we all remember, at least those of us who remember it at all. It has that same sweet quality that bespeaks of the resilience of the eternal optimist that things will get better – that being Charlie Brown – and that for all our faults, that deep down there is something good about all of us. Even the bossy and occasional overbearing Lucy (Miller) who still dispenses psychiatric advice – most of which does more harm than good – for five cents. Inflation hasn’t touched everything, it seems.

The music cues echo those of Vince Guaraldi as composer Christophe Beck incorporates many of Guaraldi’s familiar melodies into the score. There are also some pop songs in the soundtrack which wasn’t something Schulz ever did with the specials (although to be honest those were directed by Bill Melendez although Schulz certainly had input into such matters), but the songs themselves are pretty bland and inoffensive, familiar enough to be recognizable without taking over the film.

One thing that isn’t the same is the animation which is 3D. It is jarring at first to see it, although the familiar simplicity of the Schulz drawings have been retained; they’ve just been given depth. Some purists might cringe; to be honest, I don’t think doing the animation in traditional 2D would have made much of a difference and I don’t think the 3D is going to bring new viewers in. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really harm anything and you get used to it in the first few minutes.

In many ways, this will be more of a treat for the parents rather than the kids. Modern kids, used to the stuff they see on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, will not be as interested in the Peanuts gang. After all, being kids they’ll want to go with what they’re familiar with and what’s being marketed better. One kid told a friend of mine who offered to take them to the movies and had suggested The Peanuts Movie that he would close his eyes for the entire movie if they took him to see that one, so they ended up seeing the vastly inferior The Good Dinosaur instead.

That’s a shame because they ended up missing a very good movie. I can see why kids would be a little hostile towards it, but at the end of the day Peanuts really belongs to a different generation than the ones that make up the core audience for animated features these days. By all means, bring your kids but I think it’s the parents who are going to have the best time at the movie.

REASONS TO GO: Instant trip down Memory Lane for parents. Enjoyable on all levels for kids.
REASONS TO STAY: Some kids may not relate to Charlie Brown and the gang the way their parents and grandparents did.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the segment when Charlie Brown becomes popular, Shermy grabs his arm and exclaims “I saw him first!” In the very first Peanuts strip, Shermy was the first member of the gang to lay eyes on Charlie Brown.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Over the Hedge
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Secret in Their Eyes