For the first time ever, I think I enjoyed a children’s film more than the child I was accompanying! Over the years, I’ve sat through a good many, ranging from the truly horrendous oh-God-please-make-it-stop ones like Pokémon and Garfield II, to the just-about tolerable variety including the less classic Disney films, to the really rather good like Jurassic Park, Les Schtroumpfs and Toy Story, and finally the brilliant, like Shrek. For me Zarafa comes in this last category, but I think it was just OK for Ruadhri. It was slightly traumatic entertainment. Most of the youngest kids were howling at one point or another when beloved characters met untimely endings, although one of these was immediately reincarnated and the second wasn’t actually dead at all!

When you think of the French, you tend to think of robust – the bureaucrats who couldn’t care less about helping you, the drivers who take no prisoners, the elderly ladies who steamroller past you in queues. Zarafa is a robust film. It tackles slavery, colonialism and racism head on. The King, when viewing Zarafa for the first time in his Jardin des Plantes, makes a tasteless joke that one of the monkeys in the zoo has escaped when little African Makis steps up and speaks to him. You wouldn’t get that in a British or American made film, certainly not in kids’ films. It’s definitely cringey, but this is the country where naughty black Smurfs aren’t replaced by purple ones and people say handicappé without a second thought. Tactless it may be, but it made for a very powerful film. No holds barred. It wasn’t overly mawkish à la Disney, but had its hilarious moments and its pathos. It’s a touching, entertaining film. I was engrossed. I don’t see it appealing to more delicate audiences overseas which is a shame, since it’s refreshingly honest and realistic.

A contemporary sketch of Zarafa from 1827

Most of the film is fiction but it’s based on fact. Zarafa really was the first giraffe to arrive in France in 1824 and she really was a gift from the Pasha of Egypt to the French King, Charles II, in the hopes he would help Egypt. In the film it’s to get French help to beat the Turks who are attacking Alexandria, but in reality it was to try and persuade the French to stop supporting the Greeks, whom the Sultan of Turkey wanted the Pasha to help him fight. The animated Zarafa travels to France in a hot air balloon with two cows to provide her with milk. She continues her journey as far as the mountains when the balloon is damaged. Real Zarafa went by ship with three cows and walked from Marseilles all the way to Paris. In both versions she was a sensation in Paris and giraffe-spotted fabrics and giraffe themed items became all the rage.

All the rest of the film is made up, but it’s well done and as convincing as a cartoon can be. It’s an old fashioned cartoon i.e. with none of the 3D Pixar type effects, and it’s lovely! Maybe I’m slightly biassed since I’ve always loved giraffes. One of my three main toys as a child was a toy giraffe made from flowered cotton and with a black wool mane. I called him Wahay Such Giraffy! I was heartbroken when he eventually fell to bits.

Three cheers for Zarafa!