Nearly 20 years after "The Lion King" made a luminous Disney playground of the African wild, it's high time the continent responded with an animated vision of its own. Enter perky South African effort "Khumba," which remedies the romanticization to some extent with its textured savanna landscapes and stony skies, but doesn't take the regional authenticity much further than that. With a brashly Hollywood-flavored voice cast and a self-borrowing scripting assist from "Lion King" writer Jonathan Roberts, this tale of a half-striped zebra finding his place in the animal kingdom aims squarely for international crossover appeal -- rather at the expense of its own message, which trumpets the virtues of individuality. Still, for armchair-traveling youngsters, that should hardly diminish the appeal (or the ancillary lifespan) of this technically sophisticated toon.
From its buddy-assisted quest narrative to its British-accented feline villain, the parallels to Disney's 1994 blockbuster come thick and fast from the first frame of former scientist Anthony Silverston's debut feature; there's a cruder hint of the "Madagascar" franchise, too, in its knockabout comic diversions and angularly cartoonish character designs. "Khumba" does a slick imitation of a DreamWorks-level jaunt, but limits local color to amusing sideshow attractions: a goofy herd of slanging Afrikaner springbok here, a deranged pack of dassies (rock rabbits to non-natives) there. Even Bruce Retief's chipper score features only mild, marimba-laced intrusions of ethnicity.
The cruel legacy of apartheid, however, is none-too-subtly addressed in the plight of our eponymous hero (voiced by Disney Channel star Jake T. Austin), a young, plucky zebra born with no stripes on his back half. The insular, cliquey zebra community -- self-segregated from other animals by a wall of thorns -- is aghast, and Khumba grows up a social pariah, spurned by his gruff father (Laurence Fishburne) and befriended only by rebellious Tombi (AnnaSophia Robb).
When drought hits the Great Karoo, Khumba is blamed for bringing it upon them; exiling himself from the herd, he sets out in search of a mythical, cure-all watering hole. Inevitably, a range of unfamiliar critters are on hand to variously help or hinder his journey, with a feistily maternal wildebeest (Loretta Devine) and a prissy ostrich (Richard E. Grant) becoming his two chief allies. The film's celebration of diversity is therefore two-pronged, as Khumba learns to embrace both his own uniqueness and the valuable difference of others. It's a conclusion more neatly folkloric than the storytelling itself.
The voice ensemble is game, if not especially well matched: British comedienne Catherine Tate is a dippy standout as Nora, a lonely, eccentric Merino sheep, but sits in a wholly different comic universe from Steve Buscemi's scheming wild dog Skalk (an oddly Afrikaans name for a creature seemingly exported from the New York underworld). Austin doesn't make for an especially flavorful protag, but that's par for the course.
Technically, this second feature from Cape Town-based animation company Triggerfish improves on last year's derivative calling-card effort "Adventures in Zambezia." (Like that film, "Khumba" is being presented theatrically in 3D, though a screener viewing suggested the extra dimension is hardly essential.) Character movement occasionally has a stiff, disconnected quality, but the animators distinguish themselves with the weathered richness of their geographically unmistakable setting. With a few of Khumba's lessons taken to heart at script level, this team should begin to show its stripes.
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