Zarafa: Berlin Film Review

Kids tale of boy and his giraffe is much, much more.

Writer-director Remi Bezancon makes his animated feature debut about an escaped slave boy and the giraffe he befriends.

A colorfully compelling kids flick with darker historical undertones, Zarafa reps a smart and successful freshman animation effort from writer-director Remi Bezancon (A Happy Event). Teaming up with The Triplets of Belleville supervising animator Jean-Christophe Lie, the duo presents a broadly appealing tale about an escaped slave boy and the giraffe he befriends during his long trek from Africa to France. Old-school 2D toon should find international takers when it premieres in Berlin’s Generation Kplus sidebar. Feb. 8 local release will see strong bébé biz.

Following Sylvain Chomet’s Belleville and The Illusionist, and recent Oscar nominee A Cat in Paris, Zarafa offers up yet another example of a low-key, Gallic alternative to your typical Hollywood 3D fare. Both thematically pertinent and cleverly kid-friendly, it tackles the seldom-depicted French slave trade via the exploits of Maki (Max Renaudin), a young Sudanese boy who escapes the hands of the evil trader, Moreno (Thierry Fremont), only to wind up on an action-packed voyage whose final stop is early-19th century Paris.

Along the way, Maki crosses paths with a baby giraffe, Zarafa (the Arabic word for the animal), who’s quickly captured by Hassan (Simon Abkarian), a kind-hearted by stoical Egyptian journeyman en route to Alexandria. When the three arrive at the richly illustrated port city, they find that it’s under siege by Turkish invaders, and their only hope is to transport Zarafa to France as a means to woo King Charles X (Roger Dumas) into dispatching his army to the rescue.

Inspired by the true story of the first giraffe to arrive on French shores (it was gifted to the king in 1827 by the Egyptian viceroy Mehemet Ali), Bezancon and his team of three co-writers have crafted a simple yet meaningful fable filled with vivid characters and set-pieces, and one which doesn’t shy away from some of the less flattering aspects of Gallic history.

In fact, and with the exception of the flamboyant adventurer, Malaterre (Francois-Xavier Maison), all the bad guys here are both French and white, with Charles X being perhaps the worst of the bunch: Not only does he joke that Maki looks like “a monkey escaped from his cage,” but his reaction upon seeing Zarafa for the first time is both mean-spirited and ignorant. (The king eventually find himself drenched in hippopotamus feces – a gesture which seems to reflect the filmmakers’ opinion of French royalty at the time.)

Using a wide-ranging color palette that shifts from the warmer hues of the Sahara desert to the colder, sadder blues and grays of old-time Paris, Lie and his team provide a pared-down animation technique that recalls classic Disney, albeit with a rougher, at times abstract touch (especially during the Egypt-set sequences). Such a style does the film’s heartfelt message justice, turning the straightforward story of a boy and his giraffe into an easily accessible indictment of France’s shadowy past.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Generation Kplus)
Production companies: Prima Linea Productions, Pathe Production, France 3 Cinema, Chaocorp, Scope Pictures
Cast: Simon Abkarian, Max Renaudin, Clara Quilichini, Francois-Xavier Demaison, Ronit Elkabetz, Roger Dumas, Thierry Fremont
Directors: Remi Bezancon, Jean-Christophe Lie
Screenwriters: Remi Bezancon, Alexander Abela, Jean-Francois Halin, Vanessa Portal
Producers: Valerie Schermann, Christophe Jankovic
Graphic creation: Jean-Christophe Lie
Set designer: Igor David
Head of animation: Yoshimichi Tamura
Music: Laurent Perez del Mar
Editor: Sophie Reine
Sales Agent: Pathe International
No rating, 78 minutes