It was an unusual instrument of statecraft and a case of outside-the-box thinking from Egyptian Pasha Muhammad Ali, a relative modernist in his time. To curry favor with French King Charles X, he sent the rare gift of a young giraffe. Getting a giraffe across the Mediterranean was a bit of trick it the early Nineteenth Century. That journey inspired Rémi Bezançon & Jean-Christophe Lie’s defiantly 2D Zarafa (trailer here), one of twenty-one animated features submitted for Oscar consideration, which screens this Sunday as part of the 2012 St. Louis International Film Festival.
Le Vieux Sage has gathered the village children to tell them the story of their ancestor, Maki. It is a tale that does not start auspiciously. Abducted by French slave traders as a young boy, Maki escapes with the help of a herd of giraffes. Nearly recaptured by the head slaver Moreno, the boy is saved by the mysterious Bedouin Hassan’s timely intervention, but unfortunately not before the cruel Frenchman murders the mother of a two year old giraffe. Pledging to look after Zarafa, as she will be dubbed, just as the giraffes looked after him, Maki will dog Hassan all the way to France, who in turn will attempt to fulfill his duties to the Pasha.
You have to love the 2D. Bezançon and Lie have a lush visual sense, clearly inspired by their Arabian and Mediterranean locales, not unlike some of Michel Ocelot’s films, but with a more muted color palate. Their vistas and cityscapes are particularly lovely, but their animals are not as expressive as viewers might expect. There is a bit of anthropomorphism, but it is rather restrained. For Francophone audiences, the voiceover cast is also quite impressive, including Simon Abkarian (fantastic in The Wedding Song) as Hassan and Ronit Elkabetz (genuinely smoldering in the Israeli film The Band’s Visit) as the sultry Greek pirate Bouboulina.
Based on an intriguing historical footnote, Zarafa largely avoids the sins of sentimentality and manipulation that often mark animation produced expressly for children. Still, there is an unmistakable political correctness, particularly in the film’s determination to ignore the demographic realities of the African slave trade, both then and now. Nonetheless, most parents will welcome the underlying principles of the film, such as the value of freedom and the importance of keeping one’s word.