As unexpectedly enchanting as its title is initially perplexing, "My Life as a Zucchini" is short but oh so satisfyingly bittersweet, an example of the kind of movie magic that's always hard to find.
A word-of-mouth phenomenon since its premiere at Cannes last year, this 70-minute stop-motion feature took the grand jury prize and the audience award at the top-drawer Annency International Animation Film Festival.
More impressive still, it managed the almost unheard of double feat of becoming one of nine foreign-language Oscar semifinalists (it's Switzerland's entry), as well as one of five nominees for the animated feature award. Its technique may be time-intensive and its subject matter unlikely, but this film offers the kind of satisfactions that last.
As directed by Claude Barras from the French novel "Autobiography of a Courgette" (the French word for zucchini), this is classic stop-motion, involving frame-by-frame manipulation of three-dimensional models in a way that is so painstaking that each animator ends up with just three seconds of film per day.
The models used in "Zucchini" are fairly rudimentary, but the individual heads are quite large with enormous eyes that seem, almost against reason, to express profound emotion. The idea, which director Barras says he borrowed from Hergé, the creator of Tintin, is that the more a face's style is simplified, the more an audience can project their own emotions on it, which is certainly what happens here.
With a story centering on an involving group of 10-year-old orphans, each of whom has a troubled past, "Zucchini" does not lack for situations to be emotional about.
But what is special about this film is that, helped by a deft script by Céline Sciamma (herself a strong director with "Girlhood" as the latest example) and a fine voice cast balanced between nonprofessional children and professional adults, it avoids all the possible traps you fear it will fall into.
For though its protagonists have seen a lot, this film is about resilience, not trouble, about an unlooked-for capacity for community and a youthful ability to put everything behind them and embrace a brighter future. Better still, it's all done with the tart humor the stop-motion figures provide and not so much as a hint of sentimentality.
Front and center here is blue-haired protagonist Zucchini, given name Icare, voiced in the splendid French-language original by Gaspard Schlatter. He's introduced decorating a kite with the image of the father who deserted the family and gathering up the beer cans his disgruntled mother goes through at a terrifying rate. (Word to the wise: a delightful animation of Schlatter's initial audition is placed midway through the final credits.)
The boy insists on being called Zucchini because that's what his mother calls him, and soon enough that memory is all he has left of her and he's talking to a laconic but sympathetic policeman, Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz), about what a future without parents might hold.
Raymond brings Zucchini to an orphanage where five other 10-year-olds are already in residence, each coping with delinquent parents who were drug users, molesters or thieves.
Red-haired Simon, who has bullying tendencies and sneers "yet another moron" when Zucchini arrives, is top dog, but there are no villains among the children, and Simon soon emerges as a realistic voice who laments, "We're all the same: There's nobody left to love us."
Unusual for a movie orphanage, this small facility is realistically portrayed as a place where children grow into a family and a sense of belonging, which is especially true for Zucchini when another child, a vibrant girl named Camille (Sixtine Murat), arrives as its newest resident.
Naturally there are complications to be endured and obstacles to be overcome for this group, not to mention truly amusing discussions of what sex might be like, but, helped by a lovely score by Swiss musician Sophie Hunger, it is all a pleasure to experience.
Right from this story's first scenes it's possible to sense a film with its own sensibility, a singular way of looking at the world, and "My Life as a Zucchini" follows through on that promise right through to the end.
'My Life as a Zucchini'
Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements and suggestive material
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.
Playing: In both the French original and an English-language version at the Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles.