“Une pure merveille, autant dans la forme que dans le fond.” — Emmanuèle Frois, FIGAROSCOPE
Under a baobab tree, and old man spins a tale for the youngsters gathered at his feet. Once upon a time in Africa, he says, there was a little boy named Maki, an escaped slave. There was also a baby giraffe, sadly orphaned, named Zarafa. And the friendship they struck up in those early days was one that would carry them both across the globe. For the Ottoman ruler of Egypt, the Pasha, plans to curry favour with the French king Charles X, and what finer gift than a striking young giraffe — a creature entirely unseen in Europe at the time. The Pasha assigns the task to Hassan, a true son of the desert, and he succeeds in capturing and spiriting away Zarafa — but not without Maki! The lad is determined to bring Zarafa home safely, but their travels will take them from Sudan to Alexandria to Marseille, the Alps and at last Paris. Along the way they’ll encounter the aerialist Malalterre, the pirate Bouboulina and other off characters. And they will have an adventure that neither will ever forget.
Today, a new giraffe at the zoo is hardly news, but in 1827, when the Pasha’s gift to Charles X arrived at the menagerie of the Parisian Jardin des plantes, 600,000 curious French citizens came to gawk at the exotic, long-necked beast. From this fascinating and controversial moment in history, French animators Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie have cooked up a fantastical imagining of the animal’s monumental journey, one with more than a dash of Jules Verne in the recipe. Though unquestionably a tale for children, the filmmakers have peppered ZARAFA with critiques both subtle and straight-up of larcenous colonialism, the mistreatment of animals, and in the struggle of Maki and Zarafa, the lot of the little people up against forces far more powerful and far less humane than they. ZARAFA has its detractors, big ones in fact — the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, the modern-day minders of the Jardin des plantes, countered the gardens’ depiction in the film with a three-month exhibition “The True Story of Zarafa”. But fans of Maki and Zarafa are far greater in numbers. We’ll stick our neck out here and say, you may soon be one of them.
— Rupert Bottenberg