Triggerfish Studios’ first film, Adventures in Zambezia, was a pleasant surprise. While it didn’t really break new ground in terms of its story, the movie was still exciting because it showed great potential for a newcomer to the feature animation scene and demonstrated tremendous technical skill for a surprisingly small amount of money. Unfortunately, it is a little harder to be charitable when many of the same flaws in Zambezia appear in Triggerfish’s second feature Khumba. The movie is still quite enjoyable and features some truly breathtaking art, but is slightly unfocused and a little over-stuffed, starring a lead character that’s a little underdeveloped.
The title character of Khumba is a zebra born with stripes over only half his body, living with a herd that has sequestered itself away from the vast African veldt to protect themselves and their watering hole. At first, Khumba (energetically voiced by Jake T. Austin) is mocked and rejected by nearly everyone in the herd other than his parents Seko and Lungisa (Laurence Fishburne and Anika Noni Rose, respectively) and the spirited Tombi (AnnaSophia Robb). However, when the watering hole begins to dry up and his beloved mother dies, Khumba is scapegoated for the extended drought and leaves the zebra encampment in search of a magical watering hole that he believes will put stripes over the rest of his body. The remainder of the movie becomes a road trip as he makes his way across the vast Karoo desert, accompanied by the grounded wildebeest Mama V (Loretta Devine) and the flamboyant scene-stealing ostrich Bradley (Daniel E. Grant). Unfortunately, he has also attracted the eye and keen sense of smell of the half-blind leopard Phango (Liam Neeson), a savage killer who seems particularly driven to hunt down this zebra with the odd pelt.
Easily the best thing about Khumba is the stunningly gorgeous depiction of the Karoo, which is so vividly realized and so integral to the plot that it is essentially another character in the movie. While segments of the Karoo resemble the stereotypical African landscapes outsiders expect, the Karoo is a tremendously varied landscape that is brought to palpable life by the animators. We can feel the heat radiating off the ground just as we can feel the cool of the rocks or the gentle breezes blowing through the mountains or the grasslands. The Karoo also gives multiple opportunities to flood the screen with color and texture, all approaching photographic quality. It’s remarkable that the caricatured animals in the cast can still fit in such a realistic world, but the realism of the world is significant in lending the movie its sense of veracity. We come to believe in Khumba’s quest because the world around him is so believable. It is also fascinating to see how little humans have impacted this vast land. Two segments involve recent human developments and their impact on the characters, but for the most part, humanity is notable for its absence and its inability to make any kind of permanent dent in the land. In the last third of the film, a crumbling, abandoned farm serves as a wonderful external reflection of the mental state of the sheep that is its only resident.
That sheep is voiced by Catherine Tate, who is one of several excellent actors lending their vocal talents for this film. Laurence Fishburne lends the right amount of gravity and seriousness to Seko, and his scenes with Khumba convincingly communicate his gruff inability to connect with his son. Loretta Devine is essentially the same character as she is in Disney’s Doc McStuffins, but she’s as delightful here as Mama V as she is as Hallie the hippo. Daniel E. Grant was one of the best characters in Adventures in Zambezia and he’s easily one of the best things about Khumba. It’s true that his big musical number in the middle of the film stops the action dead and is completely unnecessary, but it’s also a colossal amount of fun. On the flip side, I might suggest that Liam Neeson avoid taking roles as the bad guy in animated features for a while. I realize that he almost certainly recorded this role before The Lego Movie, but it really undermines Phongo’s sense of menace when his distinctive voice kept making me think of Good Cop/Bad Cop.
However, the biggest problem with Khumba is that it seems to have a few too many characters who don’t get enough to do. AnnaSophia Robb is wasted, with little to do but occasional scenes to be spunky and show her skills as a leader-to-be. She ultimately has very, very little to do with the plot other than be a love interest to Khumba. There are hints at intra-herd political jockeying that go mostly unused, and none of the other zebras in the movie are very memorable. Once Khumba leaves the safety of his enclosure, the movie keeps throwing more and more characters at us on his road trip, but very few have lasting impact. Steve Buscemi turns in a fine performance as a huckster hyena named Skalk, right before he vanishes for the bulk of the film. A pack of animals anchors the middle of the movie, and while a meerkat family and a deranged rabbit are brought to vibrant and very funny life by voice acting veterans Dee Bradley Baker and Jeff Bennett, they’re soon gone as well. Too many times, Khumba takes the trouble to introduce new characters, all enjoyably animated and voiced and presenting intriguing potential, but then forgets all about them as they vanish into the Karoo.
Khumba himself ends up being a remarkably passive participant in his own story. His hero’s quest is little more than traveling somewhere so a new character can tell him what to do or where to go next. Rather than making the story about his growth as a character and tying his successes to his own unique characteristics, Khumba’s advancement through the plot comes from little other than determination and a continuing ability to put one foot in front of the other. In hindsight, it’s possible to view Khumba as more than the usual animated family film about self-actualization (although it certainly can be that). There is a core message about learning to be comfortable in your own skin and finding your own path through the world, but Khumba’s ultimate success might be the way he influences other characters in the movie. Without him, his father and Tombi would never think to leave their enclosure, while Mama V and Bradley and nearly everyone else they encounter would wander without purpose in the Karoo. In this light, Khumba’s quest doesn’t really benefit himself as much as it’s for the benefit of everyone else. The larger message becomes one about unity despite differences, where Khumba serves as a catalyst: critical to the outcome without being a direct ingredient for it. His true quest is to unify everyone else with common purpose. Further supporting this interpretation is Adventures in Zambezia‘s explicit theme of reconciliation and unity, which was articulated by the filmmakers as an especially South African theme for a film. This broader reading of Khumba makes it slightly more interesting, although the movie is still a little too messy and undisciplined to be truly satisfying.
Khumba comes in a 2-disc set with the movie in Blu-ray 3D and standard Blu-ray as one disc, and a standard DVD as the other. Blu-ray is definitely the preferred medium, the better to appreciate Khumba‘s stunningly gorgeous scenery and the wonderful texture work on the fur and feathers of the animals. Though I can’t comment on the quality of the 3D presentation, I must admit I’m curious to know how it impacts that scenery. A 5.1 Dolby True HD soundtrack is provided, which won’t exercise your speakers unduly until the movie’s climactic final scenes. There are four bonus features covering a variety of topics about the movie, which would be much better if there wasn’t so much duplicated material between them. The featurettes are short as it is, but they become even more lightweight when we hear the same anecdotes and even see the same accompanying footage twice. None of the bonus features are on the DVD.
I have to say I found Khumba to be a little disappointing, but it’s not a bad film by any means. There is still plenty to like about it that I think it’s worth watching, despite my criticisms above. Regardless of its shortcomings, Khumba confirms that Adventures in Zambezia was no fluke and that Triggerfish is a studio that is capable of punching well outside its weight class.