London Film Festival 2012: Zarafa Review

rating: 3.5

The gifting of a Giraffe to Charles X of France by Muhammad Ali of Egypt might not seem like the most stirring of subjects to inspire an animated film, but Zarafa proves how smart handling of an unconventional topic can have magical results. Maki is a 10-year-old Sudansee boy whose village is burned down, and after escaping from a cruel slave trader - though his friend, Soula, is not so lucky - he makes friends with a baby giraffe, who it turns out has been promised to Pasha of Egypt as a present from the King of France. While it would have been easy for Zarafa to coast on its gorgeous animation and cute animal characters, this is a surprisingly brave, realistic film about France's dark past. In the tradition of Bambi's devastatingly iconic moment, the slave trader shoots Zarafa's mum dead without hesitation early on, its emotional power only heightened as Maki promises to Zarafa's mother in her dying moments that she will keep her safe. From here, the film is an unconventional road trip of sorts, as Maki teams with dark prince Hassan and eccentric balloonist Malaterre in order to get home. Admittedly, the bond between child and animal might initially feel a little cobbled together as their interactions seem minimal at best, and the film certainly doesn't have long to build it up, but the snappy pace, belting along swiftly from caper to caper, is so relentlessly entertaining that you'll soon forget a quibble that quickly seems so minor. Enjoyable as Maki's encounters with pirates are, it is really the wonder of first experiences - Maki seeing snow for the first time, and the first giraffe landing on French soil - that are best-realised here. Though the story delivers few surprises, and the forced magical realism brings it temporarily into the overly-familiar realm of Disney, it is a supremely affecting film that kids, I am sure, will entirely lap up. The occasional bout of toilet humour feels awkward and at odds with the meticulous composition of the rest of the story, but it's easy to forgive when the story is otherwise so sweet and witty, while the diverse landscapes - ranging from deserts, to war-torn sea ports, and snow-kissed expanses - are so lovingly rendered. A sweet story that's beautifully animated and will appeal to not only kids but adults also.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.