The journey of the first giraffe transported from Africa to Paris gets a fanciful retelling in “Zarafa.” Debut toon outing from Gallic helmer Remi Bezancon (“The First Day of the Rest of Your Life”) is co-directed by animator Jean-Christophe Lie, who worked on “The Triplets of Belleville,” though this traditionally animated effort, set in a picturesque version of the 1820s, has more in common with the Africa-set works of Michel Ocelot (“Kirikou”). After its Berlin fest premiere and impressive French run, where it towered over its competitors, the pic should see plenty of voyages offshore.
Closing in on 1.5 million admissions in France, “Zarafa” is living proof that 3D and computer-generated animation aren’t necessary as long as the story is solid and overall animation quality high. Very loosely based on fact, the tale, as adapted by Bezancon and three co-writers, is presented as a fable told by an aged storyteller to the children in an African village, allowing for such imaginative leaps as a giraffe and two Tibetan cows taking a Jules Vernean trip in a hot-air balloon across the Mediterranean.
Ten-year-old Sudanese boy Maki (voiced by Max Renaudin) escapes from an evil slave trader, Moreno (Thierry Fremont). He befriends a baby giraffe whose mother dies not much later at the hands of Moreno in an echo of “Bambi,” though there’s no onscreen bloodshed, and the pic is otherwise suitable for all ages. When the calf is captured by a Bedouin trader (Simon Abkarian), who names it Zarafa (Arabic for “giraffe”), Maki stubbornly decides he has to come along to protect his new friend from harm.
Zarafa is destined to become a present from the Egyptian pasha to France’s King Charles X, in hopes the Gallic monarch will help liberate Alexandria, which has been occupied by the Turks. Though the historical and political undercurrents are there for the taking for adult auds, including a rather unflattering view of the French ruling class, Bezancon and Lie never allow the politics to get in the way of their inventively told story, which also makes room for a feisty Greek pirate princess (Ronit Elkabetz) and a snow-laden trip over the Alps. Similarly, there’s a message about personal freedom here that emerges organically from the plot.
While the gorgeous widescreen landscapes have a pencil-and-aquarelle quality, the characters themselves are literally rougher-edged, a clever reminder of the hand-drawn, sketchlike quality of traditional animation. Solid blocks of color are used to fill in the characters, with shadows rendered in overlapping, slightly darker tones adding to the pic’s charmingly old-school appeal. A sequence of animated ink drawings, suggesting the protags’ journey across France, reps another visual high point.
Voice talent is uniformly excellent, as is Laurent Perez del Mar’s score, which is infused with African rhythms.