Since there are giraffes in Parisian zoos, there necessarily had to be a first one, and Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie’s Zarafa is a beautifully animated and often moving telling of how it arrived there in the early 1800s.
Presented as a story told to a group of children in an African village, Zarafa follows Maki (Max Renaudin), a young Sudanese boy who escapes from a white slaver (Thierry Frémont) and seeks refuge with the Bedouin nomad Hassan (Simon Abkarian), who’s tasked with transporting a young giraffe named Zarafa to France.
Though the end titles describe the film as “Freely inspired by the true story of France’s first giraffe,” Zarafa aims to be a historical epic, complete with sweeping desert vistas and a score that offers homage to Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia theme.
For its lean running time, there are plenty of characters and subplots worthy of their own films, especially female pirate captain Bouboulina (Ronit Elkabetz). Zarafa largely avoids dumbing down the story or overly anthropomorphizing the animals — when the giraffe speaks, it’s clear that it’s an entirely subjective experience from Maki’s point of view — and while there’s a poop joke in the first ten minutes, it actually pays off in the third act, quite the rarity among first-act poop jokes in family films.
Directed by Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie
Opens July 3, IFC Center
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 30, 2015