Here’s what you need to know. My Life As a Courgette was rightly nominated for an Academy Award at last year's Oscars for best animated film. While unsurprisingly for all the wrong reasons it lost to Zootopia, it is everything that any Illumination Studios excuse of a film is not – risk-taking, spellbinding and wholly original. One can only hope that its box office success isn’t hampered by its spellbinding merits and subsequent lack of premise of dancing animals competing in a singing competition.
Rather than focusing on a boy's experience as a vegetable, this French stop-motion animation tells the story of the young lad named Icare, though he prefers his nickname “Courgette” which his alcoholic mother dubbed him. A day of childhood innocence is suddenly halted upon his mother's death and is subsequently placed into foster care by Raymond, a police officer. Courgette is fragile, desolate, ridden with guilt and blames himself for his mother’s passing, wishing for everything to go back to the way it was, despite his less than desirable former environment of a broken home.
One of his prized possessions, a kite with his departed dad on one side and a chicken on the other, (Courgette's explanation: “Mum said dad always liked young chicks, so I drew one on the other side”) gets stolen by the other orphans, and his fracas with getting it back is how we are introduced to the other abandoned kids and their tales of how their own upbringing was shattered.
The themes are anything but tentative, the veil of innocence is quickly snatched away upon learning about their respective backgrounds and why they’ve all been placed into care. Parents who were deported, junkies, even sexual abuse and suicide, it’s all here.
Director Claude Barras doesn’t gloss over these harrowing experiences, rather displaying them with open frankness and depth. Moreover, the story creates an undeniable compassion and empathy for every character when explaining their tragedies, lifting the lid on topics that many mainstream animation studios wouldn’t dare to tread.
The orphanage, rather than a place of Dickensian harrow, is a place that Courgette slowly but surely finds his true family, befriending staff and other orphans, particularly the new arrival of a girl named Camille whom Courgette quickly bonds to. The collective cohesiveness between the children and teachers blossoms as the movie progresses as a makeshift family. With Raymond being the standout in providing a guardian role to Courgette.
To say MLAAC isn’t a children's film is nothing more than a painful statement of irony. Its themes are dark at times but its realism gives credit to a typical nine-year old’s awareness of the world and never condescends. Likewise, it’s aptly appropriate black comedy and crude wit is back-of-the-classroom snickeringly hilarious. The characters may have been beset by broken childhoods, but their innocent nature authentically shines through, especially between Courgette and Camille, with their nuances creating authentic juvenile emotional beats. Likewise, MLAAC’s set-pieces in the movie are masterclasses in animation, environments are simple but dazzle with splendour.
While the film breezes by at just over an hour long, its entirety is totally captivating from beginning to end. With visuals, charm and a uplifting emotional response outclassing any current blockbuster on the silver screen twice its length. A film that is an undeniable triumph of tenderness and joy which will stay with you for weeks on end. I cannot implore you enough to see this film as soon as possible.
EXTRAS: There are two versions of the film, one in the original French, with English subtitles, and one dubbed into English. The bonus material consists of: an introduction to the film from Aardman creative director Peter Lord (3:18); a featurette called The Making of My Life As a Courgette (18:17), which is in French with English subtitles; the featurette Courgette Auditions (1:28), a humorous short that has an "actor" auditioning for the lead role; the featurette Courgette, You're a Star (5:24); the featurette Festival D'Annecy (2:24), where the film won the audience award; the featurette Into Film Animation Workshop (3:16); and the English language Theatrical Trailer (1:32).