Of this year's Oscar-nominated animated features, only one can reasonably be described as enchanting and heavy. Yet "My Life as a Zucchini" deserves both accolades. It may not sound like it, but calling this barely 70-minute Swiss stop-motion film "heavy" — as in substantial and almost swollen with feeling — is a true compliment.
Set in an orphanage, the film by Claude Barras is based on a book by French writer Gilles Paris, whose 2002 young adult novel has been skillfully adapted by screenwriter Céline Sciamma. (Sciamma is a director in her own right, known for great sensitivity and honesty in dealing with childhood issues, which she has demonstrated in such films as "Water Lilies" and "Girlhood.")
The titular hero here — a blue-haired waif named Icare (French for Icarus) but nicknamed Zucchini — has been sent to an institution for orphans after his his alcoholic, abusive single mother dies in the film's startling opening sequence. Other children are at the home because their parents were junkies, or molested them, or have been deported. When a new girl, Camille — and puppy love — arrives, it is because her father, who murdered her mother, is in prison.
Told you it was heavy. One scene, set in an amusement park's haunted-house ride, features scares that pale in comparison to the real-life traumas that these children have endured.
And yet, the film is also surpassingly sweet (without being cloying) in its treatment of experiences ranging from sexual mystery to the ache of loneliness. Even the bully Simon, who insists on calling Zucchini "Potato," turns out not to be such a bad egg after all. Genuine sentiment is the guiding principle, not sentimentality.
The look of the film is almost rudimentary. Oversize heads barely move, except for the mouth and eyes, but are remarkably expressive. Of the French-speaking cast, Gaspard Schlatter is especially poignant as Zucchini. Barras, who has likened his characters' round faces to emoticons, told Variety that budget constraints on the $8 million film necessitated keeping things simple. In this case, necessity has turned out to be a virtue, not a vice.
"My Life as a Zucchini" — 4 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (contains mature themes and some suggestive material)
Running time: 1:08
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; www.musicboxtheatre.com