There’s a simple reality when it comes to computer generated feature films here in the United States- and that is simply that the DVDs and BLU-RAYs finding their way onto our store shelves, into streaming servers and into the RedBox are typically derived from one of two methods: Domestically written, produced and animated and then there are those that take the cheap way out- an American studio or distribution company picks up the rights to a foreign CG film, does their best to slap some English over the mismatched mouth flaps and passes it off as their own creation. To date, the latter has been disastrous and for good reason. Comedy pieces rely upon timing to deliver tight dialog. When an English language director is forced to incorporate lines that will match up with the timing and mouth flapping of a film originally intended for a different language, catastrophe is inevitable. No need to take my word for that- dozens upon dozens of films created using this process are released each year; Doogal, The Snurks, Dolphin the Story of a Dreamer, Legend of the Sea and so on (yes I’ve reviewed them all, archived here).
Enter Adventures of Zambezia from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; a film that arrived to DVD and Blu on March 26th as a part of an exclusivity deal between Sony and Wal-Mart. Where things get really interesting is that this film doesn’t precisely fall into either of the two categories of production described above. It was written and produced and animated by (English-speaking) Triggerfish Animation Studios out of South Africa but then brought here to the United States to be completed. As a result, rather than to record a dialog track of local actors, a fine Hollywood ensemble (including Samuel L Jackson, Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nemoy, Abigail Breslin and Jeremy Suarez) was integrated right from the onset. Additionally, audio work was done through Skywalker Sound to ensure the quality and richness of sound effects and mixing American moviegoers have come to expect. Finally, since the film was scripted, storyboarded and animated to be in English, problems with sloppy timing, mismatched mouth flaps, and other ugliness associated with dubbing into another language are nonexistent.
Technical nuances aside, you are likely reading this review to determine whether or not this film is right for a rental or purchase for you and yours and I’m pleased to report that for most, the answer is yes. Wearing a G (general audience) rating and coming in at a runtime of 83-minutes, Adventures in Zambezia manages to pack an awful lot of heart into its reputed $20-million budget (if that sounds like a lot to you, do keep in mind that Pixar’s Toy Story 3 boasted a budget ten times as large at $200-mil).
The film is set within the wilds of Africa and centers on a young falcon named Kai (Jeremy Suarez) living in relative isolation with his father Tendai (Samuel L Jackson). An unexpected visitor leads Kai to learn of Zambezia, a legendary city that promises sanctuary for nearly every bird on the globe. Tendai’s mysterious opposition toward the fabled city results in Kai’s desire to strike out on his own in the hopes of finding Zambezia in the eventual hope of joining the Hurricanes: Zambezia’s elite fighting force charged with protecting the city.
Arriving to the destination is only the beginning as Kai must impress the arduous Hurricane leader Ajax (Jeff Goldblum), win over the approval of the small female firecracker Zoe (Abigail Brezlen), and discover why he never knew his mother from the wise village elder Chief Sekhuru (Leonard Nemoy). Larger conflicts are also brewing in the form of devious Marabous (the only birds excluded from Zambezia) and an alliance they form with the evil lizard Budzo (Jim Cummings) resulting in the kidnapping of Kai’s dad.
Pacing is flawless right from the opening scene onward, a testament to (as one of the included featurettes attests) multiple drafting and story boarding prior to production. Visually, the film manages to dazzle as well (especially in high-definition). Character models are realistic but warm, textures are rich and colorful. It may not be quite as vibrant as Blue Sky’s Rio but it really isn’t far behind. Also unlike Rio, Zambezia does away with the human element entirely, instead weaving its entire tale through its English-speaking animals.
Musical scoring, sound effects and vocal casting are all incredibly solid and delivered in a gorgeous 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. Relative unknown Jeremy Suarez brings some welcome charisma to the character of Kai, Goldblum reminds through his trademarked dryness that he hasn’t lost touch with his comedic genius and even Samuel L breaks away from his usual straight-man with attitude routine to bring some warmth to Tendai.
A host of interesting extras also grace the home release of the film; confirming the suspicion that a labor of love fueled the film’s production team up and over many of the hurdles associated with bringing a major motion picture to life. Fortunately their efforts were rewarded with the Best South African Feature Film award at the Durban International Film Festival in 2012. It also represents the first internationally released CG feature to come out of South Africa so its success is additionally exciting for all involved.
Of course some will find fault in its lack of originality, risk-taking or Pixar/ DreamWorks level cleverness but make no mistake, such complaints fade away when the film hits all the right marks. To compare it to past domestic releases, it contains charm reminiscent to Disney’s 2005 Valiant or Warner’s 2010 Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (though visually more impressive than either).
In conclusion, Triggerfish’s future appears quite bright on an International level with Adventures in Zambizia. While making this release exclusive to Wal-Mart limits the marketplace options for purchase, it is certainly a film worth picking up should you encounter it in your travels.
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About the reviewer
Jason Rider (AKA OneNeo on Amazon.com) is the author of the successful children's fantasy novel series The Uncommon Adventures of Tucker O'Doyle from Bellissima Publishing. … more
Music by Bruce Retief Studio Triggerfish Animation Studios Distributed by CMG (international) Sony Pictures (English territories) Release date(s) July 3, 2012 Running time 83 minutes Country South Africa Language English Budget $20 million