My Life as a Zucchini
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

The Academy’s animation branch regularly shows love for foreign-language films, and the Oscar nomination of “My Life as a Zucchini” is a striking example. Claude Barras’ feature debut about orphaned children is notable for both its bold subject matter and its format: a stop-motion film produced in French. The Swiss-born director even had his film short-listed as Switzerland’s official entry in the foreign-language film category.

“That was rather rare,” says Barras, who’s earned acclaim at Cannes, Annecy, and festivals worldwide. But he doesn’t think he’s an outlier when it comes to foreign-language stop-motion. “There are several centers in France — in Valence, Brittany, and Toulouse — and in Belgium, Norway, and Switzerland.” Barras cites an informal network of stop-motion animators who travel from one center to another to work. “We received proposals from the four corners of Europe, and even from the U.S. and New Zealand.”

“Autobiography of a Zucchini” was a book that inspired the film, but Barras and screenwriter Celine Sciamma broadened its appeal to reach younger children.

His puppets’ simple faces and huge eyes were dictated by the film’s $8 million budget. “The faces are like emoticons,” he says.

This style has prompted comparisons to Tim Burton’s stop-motion movies. While Barras says that’s flattering, he leans toward the graphic inspiration of Czech director Jiri Trnka and the social realism of Ken Loach.

When the film’s North American distributor GKids brings “My Life as a Zucchini” to U.S. audiences, its French voices will be replaced by Will Forte, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page, and Amy Sedaris, among other actors, and children.

“Making the children sound believable is a great achievement,” says GKids president David Jesteadt. “You feel a closeness with these characters’ stories. I think it’s still rare to see stop-motion animated features on the global scene. But the craft Claude used is why it works so well.”

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