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Review – The Essential Animation Charms of ‘My Life as a Zucchini’ and ‘The Red Turtle’

By  · Published on February 23rd, 2017

The Essential Animation Charms of ‘My Life as a Zucchini’ and ‘The Red Turtle’

Why you need to see the other two Oscar nominees.

If you have young children and aren’t a professional movie viewer, chances are you’re only well-acquainted with this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature. And even then, you’ve probably still only seen three of the contenders, the two Disney productions, Zootopia and Moana, and maybe the stop motion adventure Kubo and the Two Strings. That last one may even have been a little too scary for your kids. As for the other two, My Life as a Zucchini and The Red Turtle, they’re foreign-made movies that aren’t easy family fare, and they haven’t been widely available.

Until now. Possibly. Depending on where you live. This weekend, The Red Turtle is making its way to theaters beyond the nation’s major cities, though it’s still a relatively limited number of locations. Also this Friday, which just so happens to be the start of Oscar weekend, My Life as a Zucchini opens in New York City and Los Angeles, kicking off its own rollout across the rest of the country through March. Neither will win the Academy Award, but whether you’re able to see them before Sunday’s show or only afterward, they must not be dismissed or forgotten about as also-rans.

It’s hard to argue that either of them deserve the Oscar over the three mainstream American movies, because they’re just so different from the usual anthropomorphic animal stories and singing princess fairy tales and more calculated yet less soulful stop motion efforts. It doesn’t matter which takes the prize, as together the five films offer a wonderful range of animation delights. And My Life as a Zucchini and The Red Turtle represent the most distinctly different achievements of the bunch. With the former, though, you just need to be sure you see the right version.

My Life as a Zucchini is a coming-of-age movie, directed by Claude Barras based on the 2002 French novel “Autobiographie d’une Courgette,” about a kid nicknamed Zucchini who accidentally kills his alcoholic mother. He winds up in a small foster home, finding a kind of family there among the other abandoned and orphaned children and their caretakers. Although the new movie version has been sanitized somewhat from the book, which isn’t exactly for young readers, the story as well as some of the themes and visuals are most appropriate for viewers aged in the double digits.

Plus, to best appreciate My Life as a Zucchini, you’ll want to see the original French-language version, and yes that means you’ll want the subtitled rather than the dubbed release. Fortunately, most theaters will be showing both versions. Here’s what you get with the original that you don’t get with the dubbed incarnation: the child actors who voice the children characters (including Gaspard Schlatter as “Zucchini”) have a natural, almost improvisational quality to their speech, the result of Barras not making them memorize their dialogue so much as speak the lines in their own words.

That approach really makes the film, fitting well with the crude yet cute character design. The voice acting in the dubbed version (which includes famous adults like Nick Offerman and Ellen Page, as well as child actors who sound like veteran professionals in spite of their age, including Erick Abbate as “Zucchini”), has a more conventional, polished sound that feels overproduced and not at all right for the story. Knowingly emphasizing its voice work, My Life as a Zucchini also has a bonus scene during the end credits depicting, in animation, Schlatter’s casting session (the dubbed version includes the scene intact with Schlatter’s voice, subtitled, which doesn’t make much sense after watching with Abbate voicing the role).

As for the rest of the movie, it’s fine, often very sweet, and it handles the heavy themes of death, drug abuse, child abuse, and more very well from the perspectives of the children. I do wish My Life as a Zucchini was better focalized with regards to it being Zucchini’s story, as the title claims and as the bits of voiceover narration adhere to; for a while it’s much more concentrated on another one of the orphans. But otherwise there’s nothing to criticize that’s not wholly subjective and a matter of my personal dislike of the look of some of the characters, specifically their scratchy red noses.

The Red Turtle is a little easier on the whole family, as there’s almost no dialogue, and what little there is – a few utterances of “hey!” – requires no English-language version. No subtitling, no dubbing. It’s a marvelously visual film, though it’s possibly too slow for younger children anyway. It’s not a kid movie nor an adult movie. It’s not for any audience in particular other than one that likes to be enchanted by visual storytelling and basic fairy tale and mythology plots. The story concerns a castaway who one day encounters a large sea turtle that magically changes the course of his desert-island-dwelling life.

Directed and co-written by Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit (a previous Oscar winner for his 2000 short, Father and Daughter), The Red Turtle has its own issues, but they’re minor and I’m nitpicking to address them. As much as I love that the film is dialogue-free, that actually becomes somewhat implausible for the story in the latter half. The first part is also much more exciting in its depiction of the adventurous survivalism of the stranded man. And there are a lot of questions that arise about where the story goes that can’t be answered because there’s nobody to explain the details or the characters’ motives.

Yet every single shot in The Red Turtle is perfect, especially because of the intricate and beautifully imagined backdrops, and in terms of just what is on screen, the story action is directed faultlessly. While there’s not always the greatest emotional connection to the characters, between them or for the audience, the film is occasionally pretty affecting for something of its simple 2D hand-drawn style. We don’t get many films of any format so lacking in their dependence on dialogue these days, and it’s essential that we see more like this and the past-nominated works by Sylvain Chomet.

The essential charms of My Life as a Zucchini and The Red Turtle are contrasting components. The former is worth seeing for its voice work and what it does freely with its dialogue, while the latter is a must-see feature because of its lack of voice work (and coming from Studio Ghibli, whose films tend to get distracting celebrity-filled dubs, that’s really notable) and what it does freely with its imagery, including fantastic dream sequences. They face strong mainstream competition at the Oscars this year, but hopefully they at least benefit in the notice of being nominated.

See them both once they’re playing near you.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.