Two New Releases Present Complex Characters

Best Animated Feature nominee 'My Life as a Zucchini' and passionate tale 'The Ottoman Lieutenant' are coming to local theaters this week.

Mar 8, 2017 at 11:46 am

click to enlarge Characters have big eyes and equally large hearts in "Zucchini." - Photo: Courtesy of GKIDS, Inc.
Photo: Courtesy of GKIDS, Inc.
Characters have big eyes and equally large hearts in "Zucchini."
In My Life as a Zucchini, one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature, audiences are introduced to a young boy known as Zucchini (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter), the nickname given to him by his mother. The film is a Swiss-French production from director Claude Barras.

It’s the last of this year’s Best Animated Feature nominees to open theatrically in Cincinnati. The others are Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, The Red Turtle and winner Zootopia.

Zucchini is a bit of a dreamer, in part because he’s largely left to his own devices as his mother spends most of her time drinking beer in front of the television. After her accidental death, the 9-year-old Zucchini is initially befriended by Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz), a kind police officer who sees something in the boy worth nurturing, before being placed in a foster home with a ragtag collection of orphans. 

It takes time for Zucchini to settle in, and there are the requisite moments of teasing that will leave audiences anxious. Despite the fact that Barras’ film employs stop-motion animation techniques, there is a willingness to confront Zucchini’s life as a fully realized human tale that transcends technique. 

The escapist fantasy normally presented in animated features, where social and cultural realities get softened through the use of animal stand-ins or an exclusive child-centric perspective, never emerges. This is a PG-13 film. Barras puts complete faith in the audience to embrace Zucchini’s experiences as a sadly common situation in everyday life. 

By offering up characters like Raymond, Camille (a late arrival at the orphanage and Zucchini’s first crush) and Simon (the bully who transforms into someone far more meaningful), My Life as a Zucchini morphs into a reflection of the flesh-and-blood world. It’s full of characters with big eyes that look right through you, while their equally large hearts are capable of bursting with well-earned lessons of love.  

A word to the wise: Audiences who attend screenings of My Life as a Zucchini should hang around for a hilarious post-credit sequence that, in and of itself, might be worth the price of admission. The world of this Zucchini will certainly take on a life of its own. (Opens Friday at the Mariemont Theatre) (PG-13) Grade: A-

Love and war expose the idealistic romantic lurking inside the most conventional of hearts. For proof, look no further than The Ottoman Lieutenant from screenwriter Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia) and director Joseph Ruben (Sleeping with the Enemy). We know we’re in for a passionate tale because golden-haired Lillie (Hera Hilmar) handles the voice-over narration, affirming her position as the romantic and moral compass, the true-north focal point in this story from the dawn of the 20th century.

As a young nurse in a Philadelphia hospital, Lillie dares to challenge authority and the social codes by bringing a wounded black man into the emergency room, only to have the attending doctors and nurses, as well as the administration, refuse to treat him and have him physically removed from the premises. To make sure we register her outrage over the situation, she informs us that this affront shakes her to the core.

When she attends a lecture by a handsome doctor (Josh Hartnett) working in an American medical mission in Istanbul that is willing to treat all patients regardless of skin color or religion, she immediately decides to book passage there.

She lands in the Ottoman Empire just as the world stands on the brink of World War I. She receives a curiously muted awakening to the social mores of the region from a dashing army lieutenant named Ismail (Michiel Huisman), a Muslim warrior with a conscience and Universalist tendencies. The attraction stirs between Lillie and Ismail, with the good doctor brooding on the sidelines.

That makes for a predictable story, but there’s a small saving grace in watching Lillie pursue her twin passions — to heal and to love Ismail — without compromise. Lillie as a character holds the film together with a resolve we rarely see in protagonists, male or female. (Opens Friday at AMC Newport on the Levee) (PG-13) Grade: C+