Adventures in Zambezia (formerly known as Zambezia) has been in production for a long time – I should know, I turned down a job on the film several years ago. With all that development time and a world class voice cast, can this proudly South African animated feature stack up to America’s big boys?
A young falcon lives isolated with his father in the wilderness; one day however, a gang of Maribou attacks a stork that enters the raptor’s domain. Dispatching of the storks and saving the weary traveler, Kai decides to follow the stork and makes his way to the legendary bird city of Zambezia – a place that his father mysteriously abandoned many years ago.
Last year’s Jock of the Bushveld adaptation may have been an abortion of a film but it cast the die for the South African animation landscape…the die however has allowed South African studios to scrape by with the bare minimum.
In the animation industry, extended development times can be a blessing and a curse – when applied to preproduction, having as much time as possible is never a bad thing, but it’s evident that the lengthy period took its toll on the production side and visuals that may have been passable a few years ago appear downright deplorable at times and simply acceptable at most (which is no better really). The textures on the CG models is muddy and worst of all, the rendering of the models shows signs of jagged polygons, especially around the beak areas – it’s just ugly but at least the backgrounds look good.
Complaining about the visuals really stems from South Africa’s lack of resources and an animation industry that has the highschool mentality of scraping by; thankfully, the voice cast brings an impressive international touch to a film that never attempts to be fantastic. Voices from the rising Jeremy Suarez to the legendary Leonard Nimoy and Samuel L. Jackson all feature prominently and one can only wish that the visuals matched the prestige of the actors; a disappointment is that voices can only do so much to enhance the charisma of characters undone by budget oriented design cues and feeble attempts at authentic unspoken dialogue. The talents work with the limited material that they are given but another downfall of Zambezia is it’s pitiful use of humour which is condemned to the realm of “tries to be funny but isn’t” mostly due to incompetent writing from a team that haven’t a clue on how to deliver a joke.
Adventures in Zambezia wasn’t always set to be a 3-D film, that much is obvious, but Jock’s success must have inspired the producers of Zambezia to go that route too. The film suffers from what I like to call planular depth distortion, which is to say that the objects seem flat and don’t blend into the background, similar to the effects of green screen correction when overlayed on live action footage (for instance the rancor scene in Return of the Jedi). It’s great for 3-D but in regular cinemas it just comes across as cheap.
I maintain that any film, regardless of visual standards can be astonishing based on good writing and cinematography alone – unfortunately, Zambezia falls flat in these areas as well. The story is an unexciting but nonetheless competent tale that translates well on screen, and the screen is truly where the film falls apart. I’ll tell it like it is – the camera work sucks in Zambezia, it’s like the cinematographer and storyboard artists got together in the war room and brainstormed a way to take an okayish script and make a film completely devoid of drama and excitement. It’s a sentiment that echoes throughout the film and many a time I felt like throttling the cinematographer for lacking even the basic principles of composition and framing.
It’s got an all ages restriction but the problem is that it’s for everyone and no-one, trying to be a big Hollywood production but sits on the fringe with its independent mindeset. In spite of this, parents accompanying kids to the movies won’t find Zambezia a chore to sit through, just an unexciting experience.
The Bottom Line
Adventures in Zambezia is a significant step up in quality for South African animated feature length films, especially given what has come before it. Be that as it may, it still doesn’t tread water against what we see from other countries in terms of polish. While the visuals look acceptable when shots are composed at a long distance, the computer generated models can be downright ugly at times and the animation itself lacks charm and character. Long development times and a general lack of inspiration are what stop Zambezia from achieving the greatness that it could have been.