Earn your stripes!
From the animation team that brought us Adventures in Zambezia comes the company’s second offering, Khumba. And just like with its first foray into feature-length animation, this time around we travel to a land seldom seen on the silver screen. Though the plot hardly breaks new ground, the visuals and performances help ground the story while raising it above typical straight-to-disc offerings.
Khumba is the story of young zebra Khumba (Jake T. Austin), who’s born with only half his stripes. He despairs of being normal but then a mystical mute grasshopper visits his fenced-in portion of the desert (aka, The Karoo) and draws him a map to what appears to be water. Soon after, Khumba’s ailing mother (Anika Noni Rose) tells him a story about the first zebras. They obtained their stripes through magical water and Khumba connects the dots. The magical water hole his mother references must be the same place the mute grasshopper is directing him to! So Khumba journeys to find the water that will help him become accepted. It’s part coming-of-age story part quest film.
Khumba is a fairly typical fish-out-of-water story though in this case it’s a zebra literally out of water story, due to a drought. Though Khumba has the unconditional love and acceptance of his parents, the rest of his herd is not so kind, with the exception of Tombi (AnnaSophia Robb) who is herself a bit of an outcast for being a tomboy. So it’s no surprise Khumba learns entirely the wrong message from his mother’s story. While she wants him to see that becoming striped means all the zebras became nearly indistinguishable, Khumba only hears what he wants to. Thus when his mother passes away and he is blamed for the drought that falls upon the herd, it is all too easy for him to decide to leave the safety of his home and journey into the unknown.
While on this expedition to the water hole, Khumba, of course, encounters a diverse cast of characters, some of whom are more lovable than others. There’s Skalk (Steve Buscemi), a dog who lures Khumba into a trap where the rest of his pack are laying in wait to feast upon him. Khumba is saved by Mama V (Loretta Devine), a wildebeest whose past leads her to mother the young zebra. Her sworn companion is Bradley (Richard E. Grant), an ostrich who dreams of stardom and already has the diva act necessary down pat.
But while most of the characters bear Khumba no ill will and indeed lend their support to his quest, what kind of a story would it be without a villain? In this case, the villain is Phango (Liam Neeson), a cheetah who’s blind in one eye and hell-bent on finding Khumba and having him for dinner. Khumba’s trek puts many things into motion, including the relocation of his own herd, led by Khumba’s father, Seko (Laurence Fishburne), who is also tracking Khumba. Phango goes searching for Khumba only once he’s on the road. And Khumba comes across other animal groupings who decide to follow him to the magical mystic place. Things come to a head at the magic watering hole and play out pretty much as you expect. The South African Karoo’s wildlife is rearranged entirely and life lessons are learned by (almost) all.
Khumba is worth watching thanks to the striking visuals paired with A-list performances. The story is a simple one and easily relatable, even with younger kids. The visuals draw you in and the performances help you decide to stay and see the journey through. The story takes place on The Karoo, a section of South African desert never before seen in an animated film. And the animators approach the visuals the smart way: they take their own personal experiences and love for the region and filter it through the eyes of a child. By catering first and foremost to their target audience, they ensure the visuals are as wondrous and stunning as you can hope for.
As far as performances go there’s nothing that hurts an animated film more than shoddy voice work. Subpar technical elements can be forgiven if the characters and their performers are compelling enough. Luckily Khumba boasts a truly impressive cast of actors, from Laurence Fishburne to Steve Buscemi to Loretta Devine. Luckier still the characters don’t fall completely into the stereotype pool, allowing the actors to add their own flair where the script allows. I can recommend Khumba as a prime example of beautiful animation supported by talented actors and a family-friendly story.
Fair warning: I don’t have a 3D television or Blu-ray player capable of playing 3D discs, so I cannot speak to how Khumba 3D (Blu-ray) looks or sounds in that specific format. However the Blu-ray version is beautiful. The video transfer is a 1.78:1/1080p with detail to spare, and I really appreciate the many layers receiving focus. Too often animated releases feature foreground-heavy visuals, yet the care the Khumba animators take is evident throughout the frame. The background is as pleasing as foreground. The audio track is a True HD Master 5.1 and though the musical numbers are few they are served very well by this choice. Not that the rest of the film suffers, far from it, but it’s the music which really demonstrates the track’s strength.
The few featurettes included are short enough that you can put them on with young ones still watching but the subject matter isn’t likely to hold their attention. There’s the standard behind-the-scenes featurette, which briefly details the origin of the film; “Acting Out,” which touches upon the characters in the film; “The Karoo,” which lets the audience know about the very real Karoo in South Africa, and finally “Nora,” which highlights Nora the goat’s vocal performer Catherine Tate.
There’s also a DVD copy of the film included for your viewing pleasure. Best saved for a smaller screen the visuals and audio are still lovely but are beat by the Blu-ray, without a doubt.
Triggerfish Animation Studios is really proving to be one to watch in the area of computer animation. The time and effort they pour into their pictures is evident, as is the crew’s connection to the settings portrayed within. This multi-disc set is the best way to see Khumba as it truly offers just about every way for you to watch the film. The South African setting is different than other animated films and though the African motif may inspire thoughts of The Lion King trust me when I say Khumba is different enough to warrant a watch.