What makes a good animated film? High quality graphics, a solid plot, engaging characters and the odd animal thrown in to please the little ones in the audience. Khumba, a South African computer-animated comedy adventure has been crafted by Triggerfish Animation Studios to be a modern feature animation box ticker. While it’s a valiant attempt, it falls at certain hurdles.
With an all-star cast that includes Liam Neeson, Catherine Tate, Richard E Grant, Steve Buscemi, AnnaSophia Robb and Jake T Austin, a first glance at the poster for Khumba may give you the impression of a lower budget carbon copy of the Madagascar franchise. And your assumption wouldn’t be far off the mark:
A group of individual animals who come together on a quest? Check. Set in Africa? Yep. The employment of the same kind of modern scripting and vocal artistry of its US counterpart? Ding, ding, ding!
That’s where the similarities end though. The story itself, is actually very different.
Khumba (voiced by Jake T Austin), is a young zebra born with only half his stripes. Nothing bad about that, right? Wrong! A sudden drought grips the land after he is born, and after his superstitious herd put two and two together and blame the poor kid for the lack of water, Khumba sets off on an adventure to find the legendary watering hole where it is foretold the first zebras got their stripes.
Not that an adventure across the African landscape is ever going to be easy. During his mission he teams up with a sassy wildebeest and a flamboyant ostrich, unaware that a tyrannical leopard called Phango (Liam Neeson) is tracking them across the Great Kagoo desert, intent on stopping the half striped zebra (whose birth has been foretold) from toppling him from the top of the food chain.
The money being poured into the likes of Dreamworks and Disney Pixar makes the road to success in digital animation a lot harder for independent studios with tighter budgets. The animation in Khumba, although life-like, is not seamless. On the odd occasion when it judders, it jars you out of the plot for a moment. Not that it takes a lot. The story plods along in the beginning and when the adventure is finally on the way, they come across characters and situations that feel contrived and unnecessary.
Eventually, somewhere between a decoy watering hole and an abandoned farm, the flaws in animation and plot cease long enough to immerse yourself in the adventure. For many in the audience though, it’ll be too little too late.
It’s the cast of characters that make this colourful animation. Mama V (Loretta Devine) the wildebeest, is a self-confessed free spirit who has shunned the life of motherhood, although her motherly instincts are apparent in her treatment of little Khumba. Then we have their companion Bradley (Richard E. Grant), the ostrich who uses flamboyance to overcompensate for his insecurities.
The funniest of all the animals is Nora the Merino sheep though. Portrayed by Catherine Tate, she has been cooped up in an abandoned farm with no one but herself to talk to, and as a result suffers the effects of schizophrenia. Sadly her character is only introduced three quarters of the way through the film, and after a genuinely comedic moment chasing Khumba, Mama V and Bradley round the farm, it’s clear the makers ought to have used her earlier.
Actually, for a film about zebras, the herd are the least appealing characters on screen. This may have been by design; the moral of the tale (for there always is one) is the acceptance of our individuality, namely that differences should be celebrated, not shunned. The zebras, for all their physical differences, blend into one entity, and it takes the threat of dehydration and a zebra naturally born different to bring them out of their self-imposed isolation from the rest of Africa.
If you have a child under the age of ten, or simply appreciate the old fashioned tale about ‘earning your stripes’, Khumba is the film for you. For a 3D animation without nearly the budget to rival the major US studios, you will be pleasantly surprised by the achievement. Be warned though, you may wait a while before you get to the good bits.
Khumba is out in UK cinemas on Friday 11 April, 2014!