If Adventures in Zambezia had been released by a major Hollywood studio, it would be solid and enjoyable but largely unremarkable fare. The fact that it is the first animated feature film by South Africa’s Triggerfish Animation Studios and was made for a fraction of what most animated features cost today makes it much more remarkable and worthy of attention. Even if the story seems familiar, it is remarkably sure-footed for a first feature, both for the studio and director Wayne Thornley, and is blissfully free of the cynical inflections that often taint American animated family films.
In the wilds of Africa, a young and spirited falcon named Kai (voiced by Jeremy Suarez) lives in near-solitude, with only his father Tendai (Samuel L. Jackson) for company. An unexpected visitor leads Kai to learn of Zambezia, a legendary city that promises a safe haven for nearly every bird on the continent. Tendai’s mysterious antipathy towards Zambezia leads to a break between father and son, as Kai sets off to find Zambezia and join the Hurricanes: Zambezia’s elite force tasked with the protection of the city and its residents. The challenges Kai faces in adapting to city life and pleasing the demanding Hurricane leader Ajax (Jeff Goldblum) both pale before a hidden, looming threat against Zambezia in the form of a tribe of scheming Marabous, the only birds excluded from Zambezia, and their alliance with the evil lizard Budzo (Jim Cummings).
Thematically, Adventures in Zambezia travels well-trodden ground, with a hero seeking his path in the world, a parent/child conflict driving that quest, and a heroine serving as aid and incentive (in this case it’s Zoe, daughter of Zambezia’s wise elder Sekhuru, voiced by Abigail Breslin and Leonard Nimoy, respectively). The pleasures of this movie are definitely of the “how are we getting there?” rather than the “where are we going?” variety, since it’s really not too hard to see nearly all the plot twists coming in advance. There are also a number of plot twists that rely a bit too heavily on coincidence, though it’s easy to get caught up enough in the story that these bits aren’t obvious at first glance. There is also a late-movie plot twist hinging on themes of inclusion that I thought was quite artfully integrated into the story without feeling heavy-handed or preachy and which goes a long way to ensuring a place in one’s heart for the film overall.
The film is definitely more enjoyable for its energy and enthusiasm more than its originality and plotting. Despite their stubborn and defiant streaks, it is very easy to like Kai and Zoe, and even sympathize with Tendai even as his gruff demeanor and emotional reticence presents an obstacle to be overcome. Vocal performances are strong across the board, though I’m especially enamored of Jim Cummings’ deeply sinister Budzo and Samuel L. Jackson’s tightly restrained performance as Tendai. As the leader of the slightly dim-witted Marabous, Richard E. Grant handily walks a fine line to blend comedy and seriousness without tipping too far into either (which is not necessarily so for his companions, most of whom tip over to the comedy side of that scale).
One other thing the movie has going for it is its exceptionally good animation, which strikes a balance between realism and caricature in its animal characters. It’s in the same vein as the tricks the top Disney animators pulled in the design and animation of the dogs in movies like Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians, which remained recognizably canine while picking up human expressions when needed. Animating feathers is supposed to be a remarkably hard problem in CGI, but you’d never guess that from the exceptionally realistic way they look on all the birds. Unsurprisingly, Adventures in Zambezia has a handful of extremely impressive flying scenes. Kai’s initial approach to Zambezia gets an appropriate sense of scale and majesty, while his try-out for the Hurricanes is a beautifully staged aerial race that marvelously communicates the tremendous speed, strength, and agility of the competitors. It’s definitely one of the best sequences in the entire movie, and nearly worth the price of admission alone. Also impressive is the boisterous musical number when Kai tours Zambezia with his new-found friend Ezee (Jamal Mixon), a fast-talking urban bird who is the one character who comes closest to wearing out his welcome. The number is a bright, boisterous burst of energy that beautifully encapsulates the controlled chaos in the bustling metropolis.
The DVD of Adventures in Zambezia presents the movie in a fine anamorphic widescreen that pops nicely and is accompanied by a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack in a variety of languages. The DVD includes four featurettes on the making of the film, with two working on a higher, conceptual level and two focusing on lower-level, more specific challenges that the movie presented to the cast and crew. There is also a music video for another of the movie’s songs.
In truth, Adventures in Zambezia doesn’t compare to something like Toy Story, but it’s at least as good if not slightly better than freshman efforts like Illumination Entertaiment/Universal’s Despicable Me and Blue Sky/Fox’s Ice Age, and much better than DreamWorks’ Antz or Sony’s Open Season. If Adventures in Zambezia‘s more conventional aspects keep it from being a full-on home run, Triggerfish has hit a solid double and maybe even a triple with it when many other movies from much more experienced studios barely make it to first base. It’s an extremely impressive debut film and definitely makes Triggerfish a studio worth watching.