I can’t remember the last time I fell in love with a movie the way I did with My Life as a Zucchini. I’d heard it was charming and different from most American animated features, which is true, but I wasn’t prepared to be so moved. I was also charmed by the whimsical look of the picture, which features clay-like stop-motion figures and sets that might have been designed by a highly creative child. Director Claude Barras has artfully fused form and content to create a disarming and wholly original work.

The film introduces us to a group of troubled children whose broken lives have led them to an orphanage where they must learn to get along together. Our 9-year-old hero has to deal with the guilt he feels over his mother’s death, but the screenplay (unlike the book, I’m told) doesn’t delve too deeply into the kids’ distressing backstories—just enough to tell us how fragile they are. Younger viewers may not understand everything that is hinted at; adults will need no explanation.

In a clichéd scenario there would be villains galore: mean-spirited supervisors and uncaring adults. Instead, these fortunate youngsters are treated with kindness and understanding. They are grateful for every moment of happiness they can find. Their lives are not without conflict and the “new kid” has to put up with a bully…but even he turns out to be a layered, three-dimensional character.

My Life as a Zucchini shows us the true meaning of kindness and empathy. It is a tonic in the harsh world we all inhabit. Bravo to director Barras, esteemed screenwriter Céline Sciamma (who adapted Gilles Paris’s book) and contributing writers Germano Zullo and Morgan Navarro, who share that credit with the director.

Full disclosure: I saw the original French-language version of the film, which has now been dubbed into English with a first-rate cast (Will Forte, Ellen Page, Nick Offerman, Amy Sedaris). I’m not a fan of dubbing, by and large, but anything that brings My Life as a Zucchini to a wider audience is fine with me.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024