Arriving from Switzerland and director Claude Barras, “My Life as a Zucchini” is an orphan’s tale done up in stop-motion animation. It looks like inventive cartoon whimsy to which you could safely bring your youngest, but there are trap doors here that open up onto issues of abandonment, loss, and abuse, to parents who can’t cope and children who have to learn to. The movie’s surprisingly dark for its genre, which is why the emotional payoff becomes so satisfying as the story works its way back toward the light.
“Zucchini” is the nickname by which the movie’s 9-year-old hero (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter) prefers to be called; he arrives at a rural home for children after a brief opening scene establishes that his alcoholic mother isn’t long for this world. There are figures of kindness — the home’s starchy but caring director (Monica Budde), a fatherly police detective (Michel Vuillermoz) — but there’s also Simon (Paulin Jaccoud), a ginger-topped terror taken from his addict parents who sets up the audience to expect a long, painful plot about bullying and comeuppance.
Instead, “My Life as a Zucchini” quickly turns the character into a rough-edged friend to the hero and establishes both the traumas all these children have sustained and their yearning to find families once more. About halfway through, you realize this is a movie about healing, pitched at a level that children can understand and ultimately delight in while pushing buttons of compassion in any adults open to the experience.
If it takes a while for an American audience to settle into the movie, it’s partly because the animation style doesn’t prepare us for the narrative depths. Told largely from a kid’s-eye-view, “Zucchini” looks a little like a “Peanuts” special run through the “Wallace and Gromit” Claymation machine, with emotionally tender characters given immense bobbleheads and wide, watchful eyes. You become almost grateful for the film’s blobby, handmade feel; it makes the horrors in the children’s backstories bearable. (Sophie Hunger’s charming folk-pop score also goes a long way to maintaining the film’s even keel.)
The arrival at the home of a young girl, Camille (Sixtine Murat), gives Zucchini his first crush and a confidant partner in making sense of the world. Camille has a dreadful aunt (Brigitte Rosset) who wants to adopt the girl for the monthly paycheck, and what plot there is in “My Life as a Zucchini” involves all the lost boys and girls rallying to the new kid’s side. The stakes are as large as life but rendered appealingly small, and the movie coasts to a finale that has the power to make the tenderhearted among us weep with thanks.
The film was recently Oscar-nominated for best animated feature and lost to “Zootopia.” It’s well worth seeking out for older kids who don’t mind reading subtitles, their parents, and any adults who can appreciate a good story movingly and creatively told.
MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI
Directed by Claude Barras. Written by Celine Sciamma, Barras, Morgan Navarro, and Germano Zullo, based on a book by Gilles Paris. With the voices of Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Paulin Jaccoud. At Kendall Square. 70 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements and suggestive material). In French, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
An earlier version misidentified the film’s country of origin.