VOD film review: Khumba: A Zebra’s Tale
James R | On 02, Aug 2014
Director: Anthony Silverston
Cast: Jake T. Austin, Liam Neeson, Steve Buscemi, Richard E. Grant
Watch Khumba online in the UK: TalkTalk TV / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Eircom / Virgin Movies / EE / TalkTalk / Google Play / Rakuten TV / Sky Store
A bright blue sky. Singing. A large rock jutting out into the desert. From its opening frames, Khumba reminds you of a familiar Disney classic. But this is not The Lion King.
The South African tale follows Khumba (Austin), a zebra born with half his stripes missing – promptly causing him to be shunned from the group. Why? Because they blame him for the lack of rain. Fortunately for Khumba, a tiny mantis draws him a map to a magic watering hole, which prophecies foretell will end the drought and give the zebra his full deck of black lines. Unfortunately for Khumba, the watering hole is a long way away. And, even more unfortunately for us, it feels like it.
The young hero’s journey is peopled with a textbook smattering of colourful critters: a sassy wildebeest (Loretta Devine), a sneaky hyena (Steve Buscemi) and even a thesping British ostrich (Richard E. Grant). The supporting cast is full of such starry names, right up to Liam Neeson as the evil, half-blind leopard, Phango. But while they are clearly enjoying themselves, the beasts never come across as anything more than the stereotypical kind of animals who would normally appear in an animated wildlife adventure.
This, in itself, would not be a problem if they brought with them funny jokes – but Khumba is light on laughs, its gags feeling obvious or undeveloped. In one scene, Richard E. Grant, hamming it up to his beak, delivers a take on I Will Survive, because the rules say a song should be included at this point. “I Was Ostracised!” he squawks, repeatedly, never finding the sweet spot.
The giggles that do work are few and far between; one herd of springboks raises some laughs by being dim, while the odd slapstick pratfall lands successfully. Instead, you find yourself watching for the animation: not the animals, as such, but the landscape. Dusty, bright and – when looking from the perspective of Neeson’s growling leopard – full of sparkly bits, the Karoo desert is an enjoyably vivid sight. It is never a good sign, though, when a movie’s background is more interesting than its characters. While the wild impresses, the script is disappointingly tame, despite the input of Jonathan Roberts, who has previously helped to write Monsters, Inc., The Lion King and the fabulous James and the Giant Peach. Even the message of being yourself feels worn by now.
That dated feeling stretches all the way through Khumba’s derivative production. In the 1990s, when The Lion King was king of the animated jungle, videos were essential for entertaining the kids during the summer. In an age of Netflix, Amazon and iPlayer, though, there are endless things for children to watch. Where once this might have been a worthwhile purchase for a mediocre Saturday afternoon, Khumba: A Zebra’s Tale, much like its protagonist, is too plain to stand out from the pack.