Would you like to see a Disney movie that’s not made by Disney? How about seeing The Lion King, but with people instead of animals? If you said yes to any of these questions, then Zarafa is a film for you.
Zarafa is a 2012 animated film by the French company Prima Linea Productions and tells the story of the giraffe given to Charles X of France by Muhammad Ali of Egypt. The tale starts in 19th century Africa, where a young boy named Maki is imprisoned in a slave trade. He escapes the clutches of the camp and ends up meeting a mother Giraffe and her daughter Zarafa. After a slave trade owner kills Zarafa’s mother, an Egyptian Journeyman by the name of Hassan rescues Maki and Zarafa. The trio meets many other characters such as Malaterre, a hot air balloon rider who helps our heroes on their journey, and two sacred Tibetan cows named Mounh and Sounh (and you thought it was enough of a zoo already!). From that point, the band of heroes set off on a quest to give Zarafa to Charles X in order to convince him to help Egypt fend off the invading Turks.
By far the greatest strength of this film is the jaw-droopingly gorgeous artwork and animation. From Maki’s spider-like crawling to Zarafa’s graceful gait, everything flows and moves very organically throughout. The artwork is as expressive and colorful as a graphic novel made by Kazu Kibuishi (Copper and The Amulet). This artwork is most evident in the design of the characters, which enhances their already larger-than-life personalities. Malaterre, the hot air balloon rider who helps our heroes on their journey, is drawn with a wide body and sports a beak-like nose and tuffs of red hair. Malaterre’s owl-like appearance serves to bring out his wise and careful nature. This artwork not only gives life to the characters within the story, but also the scenic backgrounds. The Sahara Desert is bright and vast while the city of Paris is cold and gloomy. This contrast enriches the tones created in each setting of the film.
As much as I enjoyed the artwork and animation, I can’t help but be bothered by the many problems with the storytelling. One of the biggest problems was the fact that most of the film is narrated. Much like the snowman in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, the narration in Zarafa is told through a village elder is front of an audience of children. Narration only works when it’s occasionally used to add more information and context to the film. In Zarafa, the narration occurs so often that it just becomes tedious and pointless. Most of what the elder says to the children through narration isn’t even crucial to the story. Do we really need to know exactly why the two sacred cows are named Mounh and Sounh or why they were considered sacred in the first place? Leaving out the history of the two cows would’ve added a bit of mystery to the story; much like the force did in Star Wars before the midi-chlorian cells ruined everything.
Most of the story is not as fantastical as other animated movies. There’s no singing animals or furniture to be seen here. In addition, it deals with very real and serious themes such as slavery and separation from family. If you’re going to show Zarafa to kids you’re babysitting, make sure that their parents are tolerant of jokes that are slightly more vulgar than anything in the Captain Underpants series. This illustrates another problem with Zarafa: the humor is often seems too childish and out of place. Many of the attempts for humor also break the reality established by the film. For instance, there’s another part where the two sacred cows fall off a hot air balloon our heroes are travelling in. With their tongues and utters flapping furiously in the wind, they manage to land onto a wooden ship without turning into sacred sloppy joes. Cartoonish moments like this are more acceptable when much of the film’s world has a heavy amount of fantasy even though it may seem like it could take place in reality. In a more realistic film world, especially one based on historical events, these comical moments of fantasy tend to be too goofy.
Despite the many problems with the storytelling, I rarely felt bored while watching Zarafa. Some of my enjoyment came from gawking at how ridiculous and silly some of the moments were. It may feel a bit slower than your typical animated film, but that just allows you to soak up the fantastic visuals and forget about all of plot’s loopholes. Even though it’s not one of the best animated films out there, I would still recommend watching it if you wanted something completely different out of the genre or if you just want to drown out the hundreds of Disney songs that may be stuck in your head.