The familiar aspects of the French animated film Zarafa, finally getting an American release three years after its international opening, make it feel like it was churned out of Disney in the ’90s. There’s a hero/villain dynamic that’s broadly telegraphed, an intimate bond between a wide-eyed child and a benevolent animal multiple times their size, an orchestral score by Laurent Perez that’s rife with playful pizzicatos, and a framing device involving a wise old grandfather recounting the narrative proper to a new generation. What’s unique about the film, on the other hand, is in keeping with the traits that can be expected from the movies released by its distributor, GKIDS—namely, the candidness with which it expresses its not-necessarily-childish themes.
Slavery, for instance, is the horror that pushes the plot along, as French-African orphan Maki (voiced by Max Renaudin Pratt) must traverse desert, sea, and tundra while being pursued by his malicious original owner, the elite white Frenchman Moreno (Thierry Frémont). Directors Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie don’t shy away from showing slave ownership as a dehumanizing venture undertaken by cruel men unafraid to turn to violence to maintain their authority. (Moreno has a pitbull sidekick that he sicks on his prey when necessary, in case his evilness weren’t already apparent in his angular jawline and ever-snarling expression.) Whenever this violence leads, directly or indirectly, to a death, the old man in the framing story (Vernon Dobtcheff) gently tips over one of the wooden figurines he’s using to personify his characters and we get a metaphor for the movie: a sage storyteller entertaining a young audience with a wild tale without disingenuously softening its rough edges.
But honest as this representative storyteller may be, he’s also one lacking in the virtues of pacing and emotional clarification. While Zarafa shares surface similarities with vintage Disney films like Aladdin and The Rescuers Down Under, it misses their machinelike narrative simplicity. The film crams a great deal of cross-country incident into its lean 78-minute runtime without sticking to an emotional through line within the sprawl: Maki bands up with Hassan (Simon Abkarian), a benevolent Arab nomad; develops a bond with the titular orphaned giraffe; separates from and reconnects with a fellow slave named Soula (Clara Quilichini); rides an air balloon into a blizzard; and earns the respect of a crew of savage pirates.
Instead, Bezançon and Lie seek to encompass Maki’s coming of age, his superhuman loyalty to Zarafa, the early stirrings of a lifelong romance with Soula, and his tumultuous quasi-father-son relationship with Hassan all at once. At its best, the film homes in on a specific concept and works wonders with visual shorthand, as in the poignant time-lapse shot that shows a crowd of curious Parisians gradually dwindling around Zarafa, who’s been captured and caged by greedy white men, as summer turns to fall. Otherwise, Zarafa’s overstuffed nature leads to rushed character arcs and tonal inconsistency. (For all the relish the filmmakers take in detailing the venality of the white man, they also seem to take pleasure in presenting a montage recap of “Giraffamania,” a fictional fashion fad in Paris that looks like an equally dubious expression of economic and social power.) As a result, the film fails to supply an emotional punch to match the grandeur of its Lawrence of Arabia-inspired compositions.