When this South African animated adventure embraces its unique setting and characters, it's visually stunning and a lot of fun. But it also tries to force everything into a trite Hollywood formula, unnecessarily adding clunky songs, goofy comedy sidekicks and big action set-pieces. Still, there's enough fresh storytelling and lively humour to keep us engaged, and some spectacular animation too.
It's set in the Great Karoo desert, where a herd of zebras has fenced off its own watering hole. But as a drought sets in, bullied half-striped zebra Khumba (voiced by Jake T. Austin) becomes worried about the animals outside. When he hears about a mythical pond that can restore his stripes and supply water to everyone, he leaves his best pal Tombi (AnnaSophia Robb) to take an epic trek across the desert. Along the way he picks up a variety of goofy travelling companions, including a hyena (Steve Buscemi), buffalo (Loretta Devine) and ostrich (Richard E. Grant). But he's also hunted by the vicious half-blind leopard Phango (Liam Neeson), who blames Khumba for his own hot-tempered misfortunes.
The animators far surpass the simplistic script with imagery that takes the breath away, from expansive landscapes to cleverly designed characters. And as the wacky sidekicks continually try to push the film over into slapstick silliness, the startlingly violent Phango reminds us of the darker side of nature as well as some deeper African cultural issues. This mix sometimes feels jarring, but that works in the film's favour. As do some inspired comical gags involving, for instance, a nutty sheep (Catherine Tate), a gang of hilariously agreeable meerkats and a herd of dumb-jock springboks.
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