The winners of the Best Animated Feature Oscar tend to be the big hits of the year: Inside Out and Frozen received Academy gold in recent years, for instance. Since the category was added in 2001, only Spirited Away, by legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit interrupted the series of top-grossing multiplex smashes. What’s interesting about the category is that every year one or two outliers get nominated, just because the slots have to get filled. So usually a couple of teeny-tiny films get much, much more attention than they otherwise might have, thanks to the million-watt glare of the Oscar spotlight.
This year’s Oscar went to Zootopia, a breezy and lightweight Disney outing that had some hilarious moments and the expected ration of schoolhouse lessons about tolerance. One did not really expect the small fry to win, so it was reward enough that the New Agey parable The Red Turtle and the Swiss stop-motion film My Life as a Zucchini got their moment in the computer-generated sun. Both were generated in a very different world from the well-tuned Disney factory. My Life as a Zucchini is a Swiss-made micro-story that has some of the feel of a low-key children’s book, but with a certain European directness.
This is evident at the beginning of the film, when we meet a boy named Icare, whose mom calls him Zucchini. She does this not because it’s cute, but because she’s mean. After we get a glimpse of Zucchini’s lonely life, he accidentally kills his mother while she is in one of her beer-fueled rages—the film’s first startling moment (which happens mostly offscreen). Zucchini, as he insists on being called, is placed in an orphans’ home with a half-dozen other kids. Various mild adventures ensue: He makes peace with the house bully, the kids go on a winter vacation, and a new girl arrives to brighten Zucchini’s world.
At 70 minutes, there is very little in the way of plot, but screenwriter Celine Sciamma (director of the inventive Girlhood) makes each little touch count for something. Swiss director Claude Barras goes for an exaggerated stop-motion style: The characters have huge heads, myriad hair colors, and gigantic round eyes. The slightly creepy design owes something to the old Rankin/Bassclassics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but the mood is closer to the gentle melancholy of Peanuts, with which Zucchini shares a wistful air and pumpkin-sized craniums. There’s a dance scene in which the orphans—now a unified band of allies—bop along to a Swiss pop song in funny little Claymation jerks. It might be the best animated dance since the communal frug in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The distance between this movie and something like Zootopia is vast. My Life as a Zucchini has lively passages, but it clearly feels no need to pump up its story with set pieces. It is unlikely Disney or Pixar will ever again make an animated movie that doesn’t have titanic chase scenes and a spectacular climax, because those have become ingrained in the recipe for box-office success for animated features. There’s room for both kinds of movies, of course, although the sameness of the formula brings up questions about whether audiences are being trained to appreciate only one kind of movie. (Over the weekend, Twitter was abuzz with stories about audiences vocally displeased with Marvel’s terrific Logan, an old-fashioned movie that chooses not to destroy a city in its final reel.)
The quiet My Life as a Zucchini is out of step with the hugeness of so much animation, but the nominations for it and Red Turtle (they edged out Finding Dory and The Secret Life of Pets, both of which finished in 2016’s box-office top 10 in the U.S.) suggest that Oscar voters, at least, might be ready for something different. Technical note: The film will be released locally in an English-dubbed print. I saw the original, but the casting of good English-speaking actors like Nick Offerman and Amy Sedaris bodes well for the alternate take. My Life as a Zucchini, Rated PG-13. Opens Fri. March 10 at SIFF Film Center.