[NYICFF] Share, Care, Dare: My Life as a Zucchini

This film was screened as part of the 2017 New York International Children’s Film Festival

Children’s fiction is built on the stories of orphans, carrying inherent challenges that are easy to understand no matter one’s background or upbringing. The question that faces any narrative concerning orphans is how to portray both the hopes and sorrows of such an experience. The French/Swiss animated film My Life as a Zucchini, directed by Claude Barras, portrays and balances the lives and trials of orphan life brilliantly.

Based on a book by the same name, My Life as a Zucchini centers around a young boy named Icare, who is given the nickname Zucchini (Courgette in the original French). One day, after an accident occurs while Zucchini is playing with his mom’s empty beer cans, he ends up having to live at an orphanage. Faced with a new environment, Zucchini learns about the lives of his fellow orphans and all of their unique circumstances.

My Life as a Zucchini is animated in stop-motion, and the models used carry an eerie charm to them somewhat reminiscent of the characters in Edward Scissorhands. They can be called cute, but due to the characters’ appearances, particularly their eyes, there is a constant mix of pain and joy present in their expressions. This aesthetic matches well with the narrative content of the film, which pulls its punches only slightly in depicting the characters’ struggles. This is certainly not a film that patronizes its young target audience.

The element of the film that struck me hardest was the different varieties of sadness that existed in the children at the orphanage. Zucchini carries around a beer can; the only memento he has of his mother. One boy, Simon, is a bully of sorts, but it’s clear that he uses this bravado to mask the pain of not having his parents. One of the girls is implied to have been abused by her father, which has left her with some expressions of trauma, though it should be mentioned that the other children are shown to play with her and treat her like one of their own. Somehow, however, it is one of the cutest and seemingly innocuous moments that claws at my heart. Another girl’s mother was deported, and whenever she hears a car pull up to the orphanage she runs out and yells, “MOMMY?!” only to be disappointed over and over.

I want to emphasize that this is not a film about showing the crushing horrors of reality, and that the kids’ lives at the orphanage are portrayed with a great sense that life can get better, and that in many ways it’s not so bad for them now. After all, many are there to escape from worse circumstances, and there’s an unspoken bond of trust and understanding between Zucchini and the rest.

One surprising element of the film is that it actually talks about sex pretty candidly, especially for a kids’ movie. It takes the form of kids trying to figure out what happens when a man and a woman get together, but the statement “his willy explodes” should say it all. I have to wonder if it caught any of the parents off guard.

My Life as a Zucchini is a powerful work that resonates emotionally on many subtle levels. It’s definitely worth watching no matter your age. I see it as a way to open up to the conversation on a number of difficult topics with your loved ones, whether they’re your children, your parents, your relatives, or your friends.

 

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What Dreams Are Made of: Long Way North

This film is part of the 2016 New York International Children’s Film Festival

One person’s dreamer is another’s fool. The quest to achieve the seemingly impossible frequently rubs up against the harsh reality and possibility of failure, and what results can end up inspiring some and serving as a grave warning to others. Long Way North, a French-Danish animated film directed by Rémi Chayé, follows a young Russian girl named Sasha who holds onto her missing (and presumed dead) grandfather’s dream to reach the North Pole, in spite of her parents’ desire for her to act like a proper young girl of nobility.

The term “family film” can be a kind of backhanded compliment, implying that it’s something almost innocuous in its presentation. However, Long Way North deserves the term in the best sense possible because of how well it speaks to the aspirations and concerns of both parents and children. Sasha is a heroine who won’t let go of the spirit of adventure instilled in her by her grandfather who also puts in the hard work to fulfill those desires. In doing so, and it continuously realizing her limitations while working to overcome them, Sasha’s journey feels empowering and encouraging. Her parents, who are more concerned with whether Sasha will throw away her “childish” views, can come across as overbearing or failing to understand what gives Sasha life. However, the film also presents her parents as wanting only the best for their children and families, which is a message that resonates with older audiences, and provides an opportunity for parents and children alike to discuss the conflict of dreams and reality.

Nothing works out easily in Long Way North, from treacherous voyages through arctic waters to stubborn personalities to people going nearly insane from the prospect of starvation, but Sasha and by extension the film never give up hope.

There’s no limit to how much can be said about the visual presentation of this film. With appealing character designs built off of flat swathes of color mixed with an intentionally rough, textural line work, it reminds me somewhat of a George Seurat painting. The art style works especially well when depicting the arctic north because of the large, imposing glaciers on all sides.

The animation, even when it takes shortcuts, never feels cheap, and always conveys scale, depth, and the powerful emotions of its characters. From the imposing yet warm figure of Sasha’s grandfather to the stern, yet honorable ship captain to Sasha’s expressive eyes, Long Way North makes its characters feel all too human all to relatable no matter who they are.

Long Way North is an inspiring tale for children and adults alike. It might also be the best film I saw at the New York International Children’s Film Festival. Long Way North is getting a wider release soon, and I recommend that you check it out and see if it doesn’t help you consider how you view your own dreams.

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Magical Somewhat Secret Powers: Mune

This film is part of the 2015 New York International Children’s Film Festival

It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been able to attend the NYICFF. While in the past I mainly prioritized Japanese animated films, I’ve recently been making more an active effort to diversify my interests in animation. Hearing others talk about the frequently stunning visual presentation of French animated films, I decided to take a look at Mune.

An important note to readers from anime and manga fandom: it’s pronounced “Myuun,” and is not about what you think it is.

Directed by Alexandre Heboyan and Benoît Philippon, Mune centers around a world where the sun and moon were brought to the planet long ago, and the guardians who must guard the movements of these celestial bodies. The protagonist of the film is a night creature named Mune, who despite viewing himself as a nobody, ends up in an unlikely position of power and responsibility.

I found Mune to be a film whose main strength was the portrayal of an intriguing world that revolves around the clever elaboration of its own creation myth. The way the planet divides between day and night, the designation of creatures that thrive not only in day or night, but also dawn and dusk, and especially the designs of the inhabitants all worked to give a sense of a living world. What most impressed me were the towering giants that pulled the sun and moon across the sky, one a four-legged rock golem, the other a camel of sorts, though I also need to mention the antagonist Necross, a dark and menacing figure with a waterfall of lava continuously pouring out of his chest. Another notable aspect of its visuals is that Mune uses primarily 3DCG animation but occasionally switches to traditional 2D animation when presenting either stories of the past or other worlds.

However, when it comes to narrative and characterization, Mune falls short where it matters most, in Mune himself. While other important characters have some sense of growth throughout the movie, such as the well-meaning but arrogant sun guardian Sohone who learns the importance of selflessness, Mune changes, sort of, but it feels incomplete. This is not to say that a protagonist necessarily needs “character development,” but the film specifically sets him up to have a character arc where he discovers that the true power was in him all along. The issue is that Mune’s realization of confidence is not only rather abrupt, but doesn’t really require him to learn anything. If this were a Dreamworks film, I could picture them overlaying I’ve Got the Power. Similarly, one of Necross’s demonic minions is shown to struggle with the idea of being “evil,” and I had assumed this would set him up to contribute to the plot more, but he mostly ends up as comic relief.

A lot of similarities, though perhaps mostly surface ones, can be drawn between Mune and Disney’s Hercules. I feel that, if the film had borrowed more of the character progression that the latter shows, then it could have been more complete in its storytelling. While a work of animation can certainly succeed without the need for denouement and all that by focusing on its aesthetic qualities, Mune comes across as being stuck somewhere in the middle.

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Persepolis and Japanese Animation

I saw the french animated film Persepolis today. Based off a comic book of the same name, Persepolis is the tale of a young girl named Marjane living in war-torn Iran and its religious transformation during the 1980s. We as the audience get to see Marjane grow from girl into woman, making mistakes along the way, and constantly re-evaluating what’s important in her life. It’s a really powerful film and I recommend anyone who has the opportunity to watch it to do so.

I came out of Persepolis with one prominent thought in my mind: It’s been a long long time since I’ve seen a Japanese animation like it.

Stylistically, there’s no anime like Persepolis, but that’s not what I’m focusing on (though I might in a later time. It’s really quite powerful visually). What I’m talking about is how Persepolis addresses the small scale issues regarding relationships and emotions, as well the large scale issues with the backdrop of warfare. Recent anime, when it’s good, tends to be very good at one or the other, but not both. On the occasions that it does manage to address both, it tends to add a certain fantastic element to it which pushes the whole animation slightly to the left of reality, as in the case of Gundam 00.

Now this is hardly the case for the history of anime. Japanese animation and manga rose out of World War II, and many people have tackled and re-tackled the setting. Grave of the Fireflies, Barefoot Gen, even more romantic series such as Rose of Versailles all manage to portray the large and small stuff with a great deal of poignancy.

So what’s happened? Has anime become too much of a comfort zone, perhaps?

Now, I realize that I’m comparing a ton of Japanese animation to just one French animation, and that Persepolis may very well be an exception to the rule even in French animation, but this is the feeling I got from seeing this movie as it pertains to the thing I love called anime.