Director Remi Bezançon marks his animated debut by teaming with prolific animator Jean-Christophe Lie (Disney’s Hercules, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Les triplettes de Belleville/Belleville Rendez-Vous) to tell the legendary true story of Zarafa, a giraffe sent as a gift by Ottoman commander Muhammad Ali to King Charles X of France. Though the tale is entrenched in politics, Lie and Bezançon adapt it for a younger audience, focusing instead on Zarafa’s story.
Sitting beneath a tree, an elderly man addresses a group of children. He recites the tale of Maki (Max Renaudin), a Sudanese orphan on the run from slave traders, and his protective bond with the titular giraffe. Almost killed by slaver trader Moreno (Thierry Fremont), Maki is saved by Hassan (Simon Abkarian) who agrees to protect both he and Zarafa. Maki and Hassan, under the orders of the Pasha of Egypt , begin the arduous journey to transport Zarafa from Africa to Paris.
Using oral storytelling as a framing device gives the film a fairytale quality. This allows the filmmakers to fuse the truthful elements of the Zarafa tale with colourful myth. By having the elderly narrator address children, the audience adopts a sense of childlike wonder. This suspends their disbelief so the quasi-magical moments, such as the use of a hot air balloon to carry a giraffe, two cows and three people from the Mediterranean to France, can unfold.
This also allows the film to avoid political rhetoric, whilst simultaneously having fun with some aristocratic satire, notably in the portrayal of Charles X as disinterested and naïve when presented with exotic creatures. Conversely, it is not afraid to tackle certain hardships, albeit through innocent eyes; the critique of zoo exhibitionism is nuanced, but one that packs an emotional punch.
Lie’s animation remains as rich and colourful as his prior work. The characters are diversely portrayed, ranging from caricatures like Charles X and aeronaut Malaterre, to naturalistic like Hassan. The rough-edged pencil drawings of the characters, and the watercolor to convey picturesque backgrounds, prove that traditional animation is still a thriving art form.
Zarafa will be released in UK cinemas from 18th September 2015