I found myself listening to more than a little French throughout the festival this year. And all of the French animated features this year were award-nominees at The Cesars which is pretty much France’s Oscars.
Zarafa is a continent-spanning adventure in which a young boy, Maki, escapes from slave traders which leads him to a herd of giraffes and Mahmoud who is tasked with bringing back a giraffe to the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt. The Viceroy sends Mahmoud to France with the beautiful creature as a royal offering to King Charles X. Along the way they are helped by a balloonist and pirates, pick up some friends, traverse exciting and dangerous ground, and eventually reach the city of Paris all while being pursued by the slave trader with a grudge.
Zarafa (the giraffe) is based on the real story of France’s first giraffe which was a sensation that even influenced fashion.
Zarafa is a hand-drawn feature that employs a few different techniques and styles throughout the running time. Sometimes you can see the pencils lines, sometimes saturated patterns offset the rendering, sometimes sketchy stills bring us through to the next moment, sometimes there are so many little details I wanted to pause, and sometimes things to quick and flat. I really enjoyed the animation, it fit together in a way that made it feel storybook-like.
The settings, landscapes, and backgrounds were vividly rendered from blazing desert to snowy mountains to the streets of Paris and all the stops in between. There were many long-shots that allowed you to really sink into whatever point on the map they were at that moment.
While the animation was lovely, the story was a bit muddled from employing a little too much coincidence and a weak villain to feel solid so I ended up rather on the fence about the movie. I’m of the belief that all stories start with at least one (and sometimes a couple more) fateful events that you just roll with, but when every encounter and act is that way it falls apart.
What does carry through though is Maki’s emotional attachment to both Zarafa and Mahmoud. And truly that is what is at the core of this film.
Mahmoud becomes a father figure to Maki while Zarafa provides their point of contention. Maki doesn’t want her locked up and taken away to the strange world of Paris, much like his own fate.
Zarafa had great animation and a lot of heart, I just wish the plotting could have been tighter. That being said, it is beautiful enough to warrant watching if you ever get the chance.