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.
So even if some of the design work is oddly corny (such as a randomly perilous cliff the characters must navigate), there's a lot to keep our eyes busy in animation that combines photorealistic landscapes with witty critters. Intriguingly, there isn't a single human on-screen, although we vividly feel their presence in various scenes that subtly explore the fragile natural balance. Thankfully, the filmmakers comment on these issues without ever getting preachy about them. And the way they frame Khumba's self-discovery almost like a coming-out journey is both entertaining and important.
Run time: 85 mins
In Theaters: Friday 25th October 2013
Distributed by: Millenium Entertainment
Production compaines: Triggerfish Animation
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 44%
Fresh: 8 Rotten: 10
IMDB: 5.8 / 10
Director: Anthony Silverston
Producer: Anthony Silverston, Mike Buckland, Stuart Forrest, Jean-Michel Koenig, James Middle
Screenwriter: Anthony Silverston, Raffaella Delle Donne
Starring: Jake T. Austin as Khumba (voice), Liam Neeson as Phango (voice), Steve Buscemi as Skalk (voice), AnnaSophia Robb as Tombi (voice), Laurence Fishburne as Seko (voice), Richard E. Grant as Bradley (voice), Loretta Devine as Mama V (voice), Anika Noni Rose as Lungisa, Catherine Tate as Nora (voice), Jennifer Cody as Fifi (voice), Charlie Adler as Wild Dog #1 (voice), Dee Bradley Baker as Meerkat Father (voice), Jeff Bennett as Rabbit (voice), Loretta Devine as Mama V (voice), Roger L. Jackson as Black Eagle (voice)
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