by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
My continuing quest to absorb all of the animation as it happens is one often fraught with feelings of despair and sadness. Usually because the medium, which is one filled with possibilities in both the story-telling and artistic senses, is mostly used by film companies to pump out mediocre, by-the-numbers and, saddest of all, soulless products designed to strip money from kids who, presumably, don’t know any better. And that bums me out. Just because animated kids’ films almost always seem to make money, doesn’t mean that accountants should be in charge of their production in order to boost the bottom line at the end of the year.
Khumba, the second effort from South African production company Triggerfish Animation (previous of Zambesia), does not have that problem. Whatever other failings it does have, they’re not caused by a lack of effort or interest in the project. This wants to be a good film, it is trying to be a good film and that earnestness infects most every facet of the film, which is more than I can say for some other low-budget animated films I’ve had the displeasure of seeing. Unfortunately, earnestness and enthusiasm can only carry a film so far and Khumba falls down on the whole “being a good film” side quite majorly.
Our story follows Khumba (Jake T. Austin), a zebra born with only half of his stripes much to the mockery of the rest of his herd. He is raised by his father (Laurence Fishburne) in a gated community in the Great Caroo that hasn’t had any rain since he was born which the very superstitious herd blames on his birth, not helping his outcast nature. One day, he meets a mantis who draws him a map that leads to a supposedly mystical water hole that may give him the rest of his stripes. Tired of being different and spurred into action by the passing of his sick mother, Khumba ventures out into the wild, gaining two travel companions, a wildebeest named Mama V (Loretta Devine) and an ostrich named Bradley (Richard E. Grant), being pursued by an opportunistic leopard named Phango (Liam Neeson) and leaving the herd to decide on their future when the water runs dry.
It sounds messy and overstuffed (needless to say, Khumba and co. run into a whole bunch of other eccentric characters through the film’s svelte 85 minute run time) but the script does a good job at balancing proceedings. It only asks the audience to invest in a few characters, the rest basically wander in and out of proceedings as a way to provide action or humour or one of the film’s overall messages of “doesn’t matter what species(race) you are, everyone is still a living thing at heart and we should come together in celebration of that fact”. Honestly, I’m OK with that. The film is very clear as to who we need to invest emotionally with and I prefer this approach to the kind of mess Escape From Planet Earth had where it tried to put stories and character arcs and the like to all of its characters in its 80 minutes and came off rushing things as a result.
A mostly interested voice cast also help truck along proceedings, even if some of them aren’t very good. Chief among those not very good is Jake T. Austin as Khumba, he does seem to be interested in proceedings but his line readings are the definition of stilted. Sometimes his line deliveries have passion and suit proceedings, other times they’re flat or the wrong direction for the scene. Fairing much better is Richard E. Grant as the film’s main source of comic relief, he may not get anything funny to say but he nails the pompous theatricality inherent in the lines. Loretta Devine exudes motherly warmth whilst Laurence Fishburne just about stays on the right side of the line between “gentle paternal authority” and “phoning it in”, ditto Liam Neeson but replace “gentle paternal authority” with “menacing villainy”. Plus, littering about the film are professional voice actors in several of those supporting roles, like Charlie Adler as the leader of some Rock Rabbits and Dee Bradley Baker as a doting Meerkat father, which pleases me, a staunch supporter of giving professional VAs large-ish roles in animated movies, to no end.
The score backing this thing, by the way, is actually really rather interesting. It does operate predominately in the same way that American-made animated films soundtrack proceedings, lots of orchestral bombast during action sequences and light bouncy music for most everything else, but it also infuses it with elements of traditional South African and country road-trip music. It’s definitely unique and helps give Khumba its own feel. Admittedly, it doesn’t always work, the addition of vocal wailing on the score over the fake-out death at the end of the movie only serves to push the scene into overwrought parody territory, but it is different and it fits the travelling scenes very nicely.
Unfortunately, that’s about it on the list of things that Khumba is good at. See, enthusiasm and heart can only take you so far and Khumba has three key issues that keep it from being worth your time. The first of which is the quality of its animation. At best, it’s sub-par. Character designs for the different species are nice and distinct, even rather good in some cases (a recurring wild dog voiced by Steve Buscemi in particular has a tiny stature, specific wide eyes, mangy quality to his overall being and yet is still rather cute in his own way), but individual character designs are neither of those things. Despite how much time we spend with the zebra herd, I could not confidently tell you which one is supposed to be Khumba’s father if you put the lot of them in a line-up. This is used as the basis for a joke with a gang of Springbok, but that only serves to call attention to the problem, not explain it away.
As for when things start moving, it’s all over the place. Lighting and shading lack detail as does pretty much everything else in the film (a brief section set on a dusty plain during high winds just looks like an Instagram filter has been overlaid on the action). Movement switches between unnaturally fluid and noticeably jerky between shots, the one constant being that all actions take a few frames less to perform than they should do which creates a disconcertingly fake and cheap feel. There’s a frequent tendency, too, to underplay certain gestures. Bradley gets a sudden musical number (the only instance of one throughout the whole film so it does awkwardly stick out) but his accompanying dancing is too restrained, too hemmed in and so the whole thing feels awkward. Meanwhile, chroma-keying (the act of animating characters separate from the backgrounds and then digitally adding them in later) is very noticeable and disappointingly frequent.
I don’t think it’s necessarily a budget problem, more an issue of inexperience. After all, you can do a lot on a little over this film’s $20 million budget (just look at most any feature-length Anime), and the issues mostly stem from problems that could have been avoided. Don’t have the budget to animate all of the frames necessary to move Character A to Expression B in Position C? Then work around that, find an exploitative loophole. It’s animation! You can use that bending of reality to your advantage if you do it well enough. I got the constant feeling that a few more years of experience and practice under the animation team’s belt would have managed to make a pretty great looking film considering the budget. But there are just a surplus of rookie mistakes littering the animation and it exposes the whole enterprise as cheap.
The inexperience similarly shows in a screenplay that liberally borrows from other, often resoundingly better animated films. There are cribs and shout-outs from and to Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Fantasia, The Black Cauldron, Rio, Madagascar and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (hey, I said “often better” not “always better”) and those are the ones I actively noticed. It’s not done in the way that more cynical animated kids’ films do it, there is a genuine love for the source material it cribs from and its aim is to use these references to further its own story. The issue is that the non-cribbed material is not particularly engaging and the execution of the borrowed material never quite works, it hits those points without getting why they work.
It’s all stuff that I’ve seen before and better executed in those other places. Khumba wants to use its borrowed material to help boost its own story but it only serves to highlight how… middling its own story is. None of the characters are particularly unlikable but I didn’t feel an attachment to any of them, either. The story beats are rote and uninspired, failing to put any new twists on them to justify their being trotted out for the hundred-millionth time. There are some occasional mysticism and superstition elements thrown in to try and make things seem more epic but inadvertently only serve to needlessly clutter the finale and the villain’s motivation. Again, none of this is to a lack of trying, but it means the film never rises above its pastiche of references to stand up with its own identity besides the enthusiasm.
One last issue is down to pacing. Now, normally when I talk about pacing, I mean it in the sense of “this film is way too long/short” because that’s the most noticeable kind of bad pacing. Khumba is the perfect length, it never drags and it never charges through things at 200MPH. The issue is that the action on screen never seems to get out of first gear. Action scenes are too gentle, too slovenly, there are no stakes and no danger because nothing feels deadly or intimidating because nothing particularly seems to happen in them. There’s an early section where Khumba, Mama V and Bradley are surrounded and pounced on by a group of wild dogs but the whole sequence plays out with all the urgency of being harassed by a couple of rogue fleas. The animation too stiff, the camerawork too static, the music remains sedentary. Almost every action scene is like this and it kills a lot of investment because these characters are clearly not in any danger so why should I worry about what happens to them?
It bums me out to have to type this review, it truly does. See, ripping apart a soulless bad movie is easy: it’s clear that nobody involved cared about the product other than the bottom line it generates so there’s precisely no reason to feel bad about treating it like a leopard treats its prey. Having to dismantle a bad film that is trying really, desperately hard to be a good film is akin to kicking out Tiny Tim’s crutches as you walk past him, or deliberately performing an elaborate tap dance routine in front of people paralysed from the waist down, or going around to the houses of those who made the film and taking a dump on their front lawns whilst they watch. You’re going to feel bad, unless you’re a monster, because the victim is so earnest and desperately trying to avoid being deserving of the sentence you’re flinging down on them.
And that’s Khumba. It’s earnest, it’s got heart and it thinks that is all it needs to win because heart and good intentions can overcome poor execution, right? It’s the scrappy underdog in the sports movie that’s not the best at the game but still triumphs in the end because believing in yourself despite your sub-par abilities conquers all, right? Sadly, though, reality ensues in this metaphor and Khumba’s noble intentions and excitement to be here is negated by poor animation, stake-less action and an inability to rise above the influences it has a good deal of respect for. Hopefully, Triggerfish Animation use this as a learning experience and come back with something better next time because there is clearly potential and love coming from that studio and it saddens me to see inexperience sink that.