A sweet and sad African adventure with some admirably dark overtones, Zarafa is a Belgian animated film being released Stateside with English subtitles by GKids, the same company that has brought us extraordinary films like Ernest & Celestine and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. (They’re also the folks responsible for the wonderful New York International Children’s Film Festival, which I wrote about last year.) GKids has done an admirable job of bringing to the U.S. youth-oriented films, usually animated, that tackle potentially unsettling, grown-up issues. These tend to be limited releases, often subtitled and screening in small theaters — a far cry from the behemoths of Pixar and Dreamworks. It’s a curious, maybe even crazy idea: bringing together children’s movies and the art house. But over the past few years it’s paid some wonderful dividends. Zarafa, which was originally released in Europe in 2012, is one of them.
The story follows a young Sudanese boy named Maki as he flees French slavers and befriends a young giraffe and its mother. When the slavers finally catch up to him, Maki is saved by a Bedouin warrior named Hassan. The latter wants to take the young giraffe — whom they call Zarafa — and make of it a gift for the King of France, in an effort to enlist his aid in Egypt’s war against the Turks. But Maki made a promise to Zarafa’s dying mother — who was shot trying to protect him from the slavers — that he would bring the animal back home, so he attempts to follow Hassan and Zarafa to France. The episodic adventure, loosely inspired by a real giraffe presented to France’s Charles X in 1827, gets loopier from there on, involving hot-air balloons, cows falling from the skies, and a Greek pirate queen named Bouboulina. But it’s not zany and manic in the way so many American animated films are; it’s not out to bludgeon you into being entertained, even if it sneaks in a dumb hippo-poop joke here and there.
No, there’s a melancholy to Zarafa that’s evident right from its first scene, in which Maki and a young girl Soula sit in chains amid the slavers’ camp. The night around them is quiet, as the boy, unsure of what’s happening, whispers that his father, a great warrior, will come to save them. “If you’re here,” Soula replies sadly, “they burned your village too.” Amazingly, the story never shakes off that feeling of unimaginable loss; it’s not about forgetting or burying the bad things in life. Maki’s later dilemma, indeed, is rooted in his loss — in the fact that the headstrong Hassan has become a father figure to him, and that his loyalty to Zarafa stems from her mother’s incredible sacrifice.
I’m making the film sound like a sad little slog, but it’s the farthest thing from that. The patient storytelling and the elegant and colorful hand-drawn animation combine to give the film a pleasing, picture-book-like quality that should appeal to kids; there’s something very old-school about the film’s aesthetic. But in some senses it also feels like a blast of fresh air, not the least because of where, and on whom, it chooses to place its focus. How often do you get to see a movie where the main heroes are a young African boy and a Bedouin nomad? How often do you get to see a movie where European civilization is a place to escape from rather than escape to? And how often do you see a children’s movie that is this wise about death, mourning, and moving on?