Khumba (Jake T. Austin) is an outcast among his insular zebra herd. Born half-striped, raised as a veritable outsider and newly motherless, his instinct to offer a share of their dwindling water supplies to a stranger only elevate suspicions within the group. The superstitious elders of the herd – mulishly determined not to remember a time when things were different – keep the waterhole locked down by a wall of thorns and hoard the precious commodity.
Regardless, demand is outstripping supply and someone needs to act. The appearance of lethal predator Phango (Liam Neeson) just beyond the perimeter polarises the community. With the majority desperate to hide and wait and the elders deadlocked, the legend of a magical water source inspires one timid little zebra to set out on a very big journey. With the theatrical support of a feisty wildebeest (Loretta Devine) and her ostrich companion (Richard E. Grant), Khumba sets out to earn his stripes and to justify his place in the herd.
With Steve Buscemi, Laurence Fishburne and AnnaSophia Robb also in effective supporting roles, this South African animation is more substantial than it may superficially appear. A migrating herd of sporty Springbok, an emotionally battle scarred bunny and a memorable group of rock-rabbits on percussion elicit belly laughs while the weightier lessons about individuality are gently articulated for a young audience without alienating their escorts.
Early melodrama in Bruce Retief’s score is mitigated by a series of mad musical moments, including a variation of The Dying Swan that would raise a giggle from Michel Fokine himself. Flashes of sheer, pleasurable fear add pace and dimension as Phango’s presence becomes increasingly oppressive. He savours the beating hearts of his prey and we see their surging, swirling energy through his eyes as he mercilessly stalks them down. These abstract, free form shapes threaded through the immaculately rendered scenes are unsettling and extremely effective.
The scale and beauty of the starlit Karoo are showcased well by the 3D format and verdant flourishes of flora and fauna across the unforgiving terrain breathe colourful life into the epic journey. An equally colourful vocal cast and a keen eye for facial expression prevent the wieldy ensemble from blurring together. That being said, we could have lived with seeing less of Catherine Tate’s shrill pantomime sheep. Though she will, undoubtedly, strike the funny bone of fans and smaller viewers.
This first full length feature from writer/director Anthony Silverston and co-writer Raffaella Delle Donne is a sweet and engaging story about bravery with a wise ‘mother knows best’ caveat. We loved the cast of misfits our openhearted hero befriended on his journey, and enjoyed the drama of the predictable but well executed closing battle. It will be interesting to see what Triggerfish Animation Studios lend their talents to next.