Kicking off an animated children’s film with a pair of terrified young slaves bound in chains being intimidated by a vicious mutt is unconventional to say the least. However, this is the departure point chosen by the directorial pairing of Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie whose new film, Zarafa (2012), takes as its inspiration the true story of France’s first giraffe, building an adventurous story around how the exotic long-necked creature found its new European home.
What is for the most part a wholesome allegorical tale of sticking to promises, right and wrong, good and evil, it is told to a new generation by the wise elder of a village who sits at the foot of a towering baobab tree. With the mysticism and wonder of Rafiki in The Lion King, he recounts the story of Maki, a young boy who escaped from a soulless slaver, felt the first stirrings of a lifelong romance, befriended a giraffe, fell under the wing of an austere Bedouin, Hassan, and took a hot air balloon from Alexandria to Marseille with an eccentric one-legged explorer named Malaterre. There are echoes of Tintin and Snowy, or Mowgli and Baloo, here and the relationship between Maki and Zarafa will be enjoyed by Disney fans.
The dubbing of English words over French lips can be overlooked given the superb hand-drawn animation and very effective visual storytelling. The score also has aspirations worthy of its Lawrence of Arabia initial setting, but the subplot of Zarafa – slavery and the sale of African children to wealthy French bourgeois, moments of thinly disguised racism and a menacing undercurrent of violence – is difficult to justify and, at times, wholly unnecessary given its intended audience. There are certainly lessons to be learnt, but the message may well elude younger viewers and seem inappropriate to those watching it with them. Furthermore, whilst Hassan’s motivation for transporting Zarafa to France – a gift to attempt the French king to come to Egypt’s aid in battling the Turks – may have noble intentions, it will also be a little too adult in nature for many to appreciate.
Upon arrival in France, and to expedite the already whistle-stop proceedings, a series of picture book pastel drawings are inserted to document the journey north to Paris. They constitute another medium which, oddly, seems to represent a desire to save time in a film that runs for just 74 minutes. Other elements of a crowded plot include a diversion to a Greek pirate ship with plenty of “oopas!”all round and Hassan being promised some loving by the captain, a curvaceous raven-haired temptress. That Zarafa was originally released in France in February 2012 and is only now coming to UK audiences may, or may not, speak volumes. Its story is entertaining and the multiple messages it espouses are all valid and important ones but like trying to pack a giraffe into a Mini Cooper, it might not be the best idea and is a lacks a certain grace in places.