One of the more peculiar moments in French history makes for a visually stunning animated feature, even though it struggles somewhat with plot structure and tone. Fans of hand-drawn animation will find Zarafa a delight; family audiences should probably plan for a debrief with younger viewers.
In 1825 a juvenile giraffe was captured in Sudan and transported by camel train and river barge to Alexandria. From there she was given as a diplomatic gift by Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt to King Charles X of France: on a ship across the Mediterranean to Marseilles, and then on foot through the French countryside to Paris. She was most likely the first giraffe to visit Europe since one was gifted to Lorenzo de Medici in 1486 Florence, and lived in a zoological garden for another 18 years.
Directors Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie have adapted the real-life giraffe’s unwilling odyssey into a beautifully composed but slightly difficult animated feature. In broad strokes they remain faithful to history, while changing some of the details to make for a more dynamic and exciting screen story. Maki (Max Renaudin) is a 10 year-old Sudanese boy kidnapped by a French slaver. Taking the opportunity to escape, he runs into a group of giraffes only to witness a mother get shot and killed. As the mother dies, he pledges to protect its child – taking him on a journey from Sudan to Egypt and finally to France.
Zarafa looks exceptional, with a typically Francophile aesthetic of thin line art and soft colours, reminiscent in places of the Corto Maltese adventure comics by Italian Hugo Pratt. At its best the film shows off a tremendous sense of old-world adventure, with the titular giraffe travelling by foot, barge, and hot air balloon, and a spiced-up plot involving both slave traders and pirates. Unfortunately the narrative stumbles quite sharply once events reach Paris, and the film’s final act is a combination of glacial plotting and under-developed character shifts. The film also struggles with tone, and while some parts make for charming children’s entertainment others feel too mature for younger viewers. French colonialism gets a fair level of condemnation, and this involves showing child slavery, physical violence, and people getting shot. The unpleasant conditions of early 19th century zoos may also provoke some discussion; many zoos today are much better, but not all.
The end result of these factors is a film that, while very pretty at which to look, struggles with its storytelling a little too much. Overall it feels a little too episodic, and some sequences begin and end too abruptly to sustain a strong narrative flow. When it does work, it absolutely sings, but at the same time is without question an uneven experience. An enjoyable family film, in the end, but with some caveats.