Sunday 13 April 2014

On the plain: "Khumba: A Zebra's Tale"

The lure of big multiplex megabucks for a relatively modest investment - basically, whatever it costs to keep a team of programmers in Red Bull for a couple of months - means that everybody now wants in on the 3D animation boom. Khumba is South Africa's entry in an increasingly overcrowded market, though it's no less beholden to those easy-to-export formulas that have powered the Madagascar and Rio franchises, to name but two. Again, it's wisecracking or otherwise anthropomorphised critters, as voiced by a random selection of cheque-chasing thesps: here, we get Steve Buscemi as a mangy, jabbering dingo, Richard E. Grant a nasal comedy ostrich, and Liam Neeson growling effectively, just as he did in The Lego Movie, as a villainous big cat. At the centre is another protagonist shaped specifically to appeal to viewers who may not themselves be too sure on their feet: the titular zebra (voiced by Jake T. Austin), born without stripes on his bottom half, and therefore dismissed by his peers as a freak even before he's blamed for bringing a drought on the zebra community.

The quest narrative he's dispatched upon is utterly stock, yet it does at least send the film out among the kind of animals the animators might have encountered in their own backyards, and the veldt backdrops at least keep Khumba distinctive from, say, The Lion King, if not the ten dozen other CG creature-features that have followed in its wake. One early plot point, in particular, has the ring of something site-specific: to begin his quest, Khumba must pass through a fence that has long kept the zebras apart from their animal neighbours, bringing him in contact with those not of his kind, and subsequent encounters with barriers of various shapes and sizes suggests this may be the first cheapjack CG animation to be informed, possibly subconsciously, by the experiences of apartheid. "I don't want to be different any more," our pipsqueak hero announces, as the plot nears its climax; when he finally earns his stripes, it's by bringing about the possibility that blacks and whites might sit side-by-side in harmony - even if it's ultimately no more than the bland, demographic-spanning harmony generally proposed by these kinds of homogenised productions.

Khumba: A Zebra's Tale is in cinemas nationwide.

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