– Summary –
Director : Anthony Silverston
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Jake T Austin, Loretta Devine, Richard E Grant, Steve Buscemi, AnnaSophia Robb, Lawrence Fishburne, Liam Neeson, Catherine Tate, Anika Noni Rose, Charlie Adler, Roger L Jackson, Jeff Bennett.
Approx Running Time : 85 Minutes
Synopsis: A zebra with only half his markings treks across the African savannah to “earn his stripes”, accompanied by a wildebeest and an ostrich, as they outrun pursuit by a deadly one-eyed jaguar intent on hunting them down.
What we think : An exercise in tedious over-familiarity and generic, lifeless characters (save for Richard E Grant’s hilarious vocal turn as a vain ostrich) makes this Lion King wannabe an outright bore. Although definitely one of the most beautifully animated films of 2013, the story and characters just never resonate, leaving Khumba a hollow, lifeless affair that generates neither laughs nor excitement.
I hate hating animated films. Come to think of it, I hate hating any film, but sometimes films just warrant the bile and bitter waste of time coming their way. Khumba reaches for greatness and falls far, far short; through no fault of the cast or the team of animators who make this film look like a true work of art, but at the heart of any good film lie great/interesting/believable/realistic characters, and if you don’t have at least one or two of them, the film fails. Made by a South African studio known as Triggerfish, the team behind 2012’s Adventures In Zambezia (a film I have yet to see), Khumba is obviously a love-affair by the people who made it. The love of making a film as great as they can, even if their budget would cover barely the snack cart costs of a Pixar or Dreamworks production. It’s unfortunate – nay, sad – that a film with so much love behind it fails so utterly to capture the imagination, because God knows we all want to see more independent animated films succeed in a Hollywood saturated market. Khumba’s unfortunate failure lies directly at the heart of what makes films live or die on the screen: characters and story.
In the African savannah, a young Zebra named Khumba (voice of Jake T Austin) is born into an isolated and exceptionally paranoid herd, who exist within the confines of a natural enclosure protected from predators by high walls and a boundary of harsh brush. Khumba is born with a difference: he’s missing the stripes on his rear half, making him a target for tribal bullying and scorn, while his only friend, a female zebra named Tombi (AnnaSpohia Robb) protects him by being overly assertive. Khumba’s father, Seko (Lawrence Fishburne) loves his son, but is struggling to avoid the link between the young zebra’s birth and the onset of a major drought, which begins to leave their precious waterhole drying up. Khumba is given a mystical message by a mysterious Mantis, and sets off on a quest to “gain his stripes” by finding a magical waterhole across the savannah, and thus saving his herd. When he leaves the enclosure, he meets a wildebeest named Mama V (Loretta Devine) and a vain and pernickety ostrich named Bradley (Richard E Grant), who join him on his quest as a way of dealing with their own issues of abandonment and isolation. Along the way, the mismatched trio meet all manner of bizarre African creatures, including a pack of wild dogs, led by Skalk (Steve Buscemi), an oracle-like Black Eagle (Roger L Jackson) and a crazy sheep (Catherine Tate), all the while being pursued by half-blind Phango the leopard (Liam Neeson), who believes Khumba is the culmination of a long forgotten prophesy which will lead to him being known as the greatest hunter who ever lived.
Where to begin with Khumba? Start with the good, I think. The film boast an excellent cast, and perhaps even more obvious is its exceptional production value – I think any animation studio should be watching Triggerfish with an envious eye, because Khumba is probably the most detailed and astonishingly gorgeous film I’ve seen since the hyper-realism of Rango. The level of detail in the animation is simply jaw-dropping, and probably the only real saving grace this film has from keeping it stumbling into the Shark Tale level of animated ineptitude. Yes, I say ineptitude, because everything else about this film rankles the nose and stains the soul. The central premise is as off-color a metaphor for life as you’re likely to find – the subtext of casual racism and “being different”, mixed with the brain-dawdlingly stultifying “earning his stripes” stuff, comes off like they weren’t even trying to hide it when they made this movie. So obvious is the narrative, so corny and cliched are the characters (poor Liam Neeson’s jaguar character, the central villain, has lines of dialogue so cheesy I actually cringed watching this thing, and that takes effort!) and so rote is the adventure I lost interest about fifteen minutes in.
The film also takes an eteeeeernity to get going, from its softly-softly Lion King-esque birth of Khumba (and the reveal of his half-striped physique) and by the time the film rattles into the “quest” element of the story, I was lost. The scatter-shot approach to the character roster boggles the mind; there’s simply too many nameless, iniquitous personalities to try and get your head around early on, and a dearth of story depth leaves the audience questioning who is who and what the hell is going on from almost the opening moment. The zebra herd is filled with what I can only assume are interesting and unique characters, but the film breezes over them with such fluid dexterity I failed to identify with any of them other than the obvious “loopy retarded one” (you know, the vague comic relief character suffering from what can only be brain damage, making this an off-color joke to begin with). The “characters” Khumba and his gang encounter on their journey range from the inordinately silly (a white Black Eagle, who sounds vaguely like Billy Connelly but disappointingly, isn’t…) to the hilarious (a herd of fleeing springbok, who steal the film utterly) to the wasted (the aforementioned Liam Neeson as Phango, who grimaces and growls and menaces a lot but ends up being rather limp as a villain); Khumba’s half-cooked roster of creatures and personalities is as desperate and uneven as the story itself.
Poor Jake T Austin, best known as the voice of Dora The Explorer’s male counterpart, Diego, tries his best as Khumba, but is let down by a script that makes his character as cookie-cutter as they come. There’s no soul to Khumba, no dark around the light (trust me, Khumba is all light!), which is a problem caused by poor scripting rather than Austin’s voice work. Also working overtime to produce any interest is AnnaSophia Robb (Bridge To Terabithia, The Way Way Back) as Khumba’s female friend Tombi, and Lawrence Fishburne (The Matrix Trilogy) as Khumba’s father. Neither are given much depth other than to provide a conflict for Khumba to want to… er, leave the nest, as it were, and as characters they’re eminently forgettable. Steve Buscemi actually provides a near-unrecognizable voice for Skalk, the conniving wild dog who first encounters Khumba, so props to him for getting away from the tone of Monsters Inc’s Randall for a change. Easily the stars of the voices are Loretta Devine as Mama V, the motherly wildebeest, and Richard E Grant, who has a wonderful time delivering a Robin Williams-esque performance as Bradley, the ostrich. Grant nails the part, and although his character offers little by way of interest outside of being funny, he’s probably the only reason I kept watching this film.
So, you have a film that looks amazing, but is crippled by a hopelessly obvious and generic story, and sledgehammer-subtle morals and “messages” for the kiddies smothered by a decidedly adult tone (this isn’t a film for really young tots, I should mention), and characters who feel like somebody has simply thrown a whole slew of animated tropes at a board and seen which shit sticks. Khumba’s animation alone isn’t enough to mitigate the failure on almost every other level at being entertaining beyond simplistic stick-figure aesthetics, and so I warn you wholeheartedly before jostling this film into your DVD player and smashing the play button. Khumba is an enormous disappointment, for as much as I wanted to give props to a small independent international studio for at least having a crack at delivering a terrific film, in the interest of fair play I cannot honestly provide a positive review when one simply doesn’t exist.