Talking Animal Films in South Africa (Part 1)
by Duncan R. Piasecki
Submitted by guest writer Duncan R. Piasecki – don’t miss his amazing previous article, The Forgotten History of the Furry Musical.
Of all the things you’d expect a country in Africa to have in common with whatever first-world place you’re reading this in, I bet nowhere on that list was CGI animation studios. But it’s true, for better or for worse, and (un?)luckily for all of us, all the major CGI films produced by this country fall into the talking animal genre. Furry appeal, it’s an international thing!
Preface: important things that will colour how you understand the rest of the article
Before we get too deep into this, some context is important to understand the nature of this country.
First and foremost, you need to understand something of the way that stories are told here. This is mostly about books, but it speaks to the way film and television are made here as well. We like to fool ourselves into thinking we’re cosmopolitan, but we’re really, really not. We’ve fallen a long way since JRR Tolkien moved away from here. Fictive literature here can be mostly divided into two categories: classic and modern. Classics are largely about sociopolitical concerns (most famous is probably Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton – most likely you’d know it from the 1995 film adaptation starring James Earl Jones, if you knew it at all). Modern however… well. Publishers down here tend to want you to write stories with an African bent all the time. In theory, it leads to more Afrocentric storytelling, but in practice, if you go look under general fiction, everything is either just described as “X, but in Africa!” or just a rip-off of whatever the Americans are doing. Not all books, of course, but certainly enough that you wouldn’t even be able to find the local fiction that’s not like this in most stores. For example, a big hit here a few years ago was Spud by John van de Ruit, which is basically “Adrian Mole, but in Africa!“. On the other side of the coin are writers like Wilbur Smith, who writes what look like fairly cheesy adventure/thrillers generally. As a writer myself, who falls under the oft-confusing literary movement of postmodernism, it is beyond frustrating and annoying to see, and there is no way I’d ever be published by anyone down here as a result of these weird stipulations (hooray for self-publishing).
Second, there’s actually a big deal made about local things. Like, it’s pushed on us all the time. We have government-funded branding about promoting locally-produced items. It’s your patriotic duty to support local things, or something. It’s not always a mindset, but it’s something you do see a lot, where people pour money into rubbish just because it’s made by some local hack, rather than a foreign import of better quality or whatever.
Third, you must understand that I… don’t usually have the highest regard or opinion of this country or what it does, having lived here for my whole life to date, so there is a bit of potential bias in my opinions, but I’m trying to approach all of this objectively from an international perspective.
Finally, two languages are mentioned in the article: Afrikaans and Zulu. Afrikaans is a local offshoot of Dutch, with elements of other languages, and is spoken by about 13-14% of the population, and is the country’s third most widely spoken language at a native level. It’s fairly similar to Dutch, bar a few vocabulary differences, and if you can speak one, you can understand a lot of the other, and could communicate with each other. Zulu, on the other hand, is a native African language, the most common in the country, spoken by 22% of the population, mostly by the ethnic group of the same name. They were formed by King Shaka in the early 1800s, and are a very large group across the Southern African region today, with about 11 million people. The language is… really dense and hard to describe, based around a lot of contextual conjugation of words – there are at least 15 rules per each type of conjugation – be it pluralization, diminutization, or whatever, and they’re all based around the letters that start a word off. It’s not an easy language to wrap your head around, and it’s quite busy, as you’ll hear later on. English, on the other hand, is spoken as a first language by less than 10% of the population, and is fourth (second, for those keeping count, is Xhosa, another ethnic group and language, and about 16% spread). The country has 12 official languages, including newly-officialized South African Sign Language.
Well, enough of that. Let’s get to the fuzzy part of the discussion.
Joke of the bushveld
The country has a few classic pieces of literature, most of them of a sociopolitical nature, but undoubtedly one of the books that is most loved by almost everyone here is Jock of the Bushveld, a biographical novel by Sir Percy FitzPatrick, about his travels around the northern part of the country in the 1880s, with his Staffordshire cross dog (bushveld, for those asking, is basically a type of scrubland found in various southern areas on the continent). The book was initially published in 1907, and has never been out of print (though modern editions are slightly abridged, omitting at least one chapter of background information deemed unnecessary by today’s standards). It’s the source of a lot of tourist attractions and whatnot. As you can tell, there are no major anthropomorphic elements per se (i.e. it’s not a talking animal novel), but we’ll get to the connection in a bit. It’s basically an adventure slash dead dog book, so you have a pretty good idea of what you’re in for. There isn’t really a cohesive storyline to the book, it’s episodic tales of adventures on hunts and whatnot.
Naturally, something as popular as that, especially since it’s appealing to the children (the stories were originally told by FitzPatrick to his children, who insisted he wrote them down), but that’s getting ahead of ourselves a little. The book was actually adapted twice as a live-action film: once in 1986, considered the better adaptation for being more accurate, and again in 1995, albeit more thematically toned-down and less well-regarded as a result. There was also a musical. But no, none of that is what we’re here to talk about. Ho boy, unfortunately for us, the furry element is where it starts to get bad (furries make everything worse, amirite?).
Back in 2007, director Duncan MacNeillie (unfortunately named, ugh) had a vision: South Africa, despite having a long-running and quite successful film industry (albeit a bloody awful one, if I have to be honest – mostly painful adaptations of even more painful classic local books, or yet another film by Leon Schuster, our equivalent of Adam Sandler – ’nuff said), and having done animation in the past, though never CGI. MacNeillie wanted to change that. So the race was on! He acquired the rights to Jock of the Bushveld, his first choice after he produced the first and also wrote and co-directed the second live-action adaptation. He set about with a small team of twenty-five, and got to adapting the novel as something even more palatable and safe than the last times he did it – a talking animal story along the lines of what the Americans were doing all the time. This would be a serious statement for local talent, and set the standard against which everything else would be measured, he hoped.
It took about three years to produce, and they found themselves going up against a bigger group, Triggerfish Animation, who were also determined to make local CGI animation (we’ll get to them in a bit). MacNeillie wanted to be first, and, by all accounts, it would seem his focus shifted, production rushed forward while the director set about focusing on branding deals and whatnot. Some of the production team felt that this shift in focus had a negative impact. He managed to sell the whole thing to the international markets by getting Western star power (Bryan Adams, Donald Sutherland, Ted Danson, Helen Hunt, one of the Baldwins… Tim frigging Rice penning some songs). Branding flew left and right, and halfway through production there was a decision to release it in 3D as well, which I’m sure had an impact that you’ll discover soon enough.
The people of South Africa waited, seemingly excited at the prospect. The foreigners working on it were too, because they could have an opportunity to have an in on an African first (and I believe Tim Rice was just in because he was related to someone working on the project, and partly because he probably figured it’d be another Lion King, albeit by actual Africans this time).
Well, that excitement lasted until the movie hit in 2011. Without further comment, here’s the trailer:
Yes, it was bloody awful. The local reviews ravaged it, calling it a massive desecration of a classic text that totally missed the point by Disney-ifying it all up, and the 3D was apparently eye-bleeding (and, as I’m sure we can all guess, probably negatively impacted everything else by adding unnecessary production time that took away from time to do other things), but the public still poured money into it… you know, typical lowest common denominator movie stuff.
But I don’t think this trailer captures it well enough. It was bad. I mean bad. Like, I’ve probably seen several hundred animated films, and I watched Foodfight! despite being warned several times not to, and that only marginally beat this as being the worst animated film I’ve watched bad (though I suspect if I ever lose my mind for the 40 minutes required that Ratatoing would beat that). Uncanny valley, unfinished looking, absolutely terrible songs I can’t believe Tim Rice penned, phoned-in performances, a plot that’s barely there (I don’t think I can really tell you what happened in it, honestly – something about gambling and a conflict with a baboon, sorta an “and then” story, if you will), you name it, it had it.
Maybe I’m just being harsh, and nobody knew how to make a movie or animate properly, but a lot of it just feels like a soulless cash and fame grab, especially with the rush to be first and all the marketing deals. You couldn’t move for merchandising for about a month before and after it came out. Everyone had their own cheap tie-in to sell to the kiddies (I cringe every time I go into a DVD shop down here and see that word plastered above the animated film section).
I guess that rushing to be the first really paid off, eh guys? But hey, at least you won the race and came first. Congratulations, it was worth it.
The film later got sold to foreigners as Jock the Hero Dog (because who the hell out there knows what bushveld is, or even how to pronounce it?) where it enjoyed slightly more critical success, but wasn’t exactly a hit from what I can tell. You can buy it on Blu-Ray in the USA though (only DVD here as far as I know)… if you’re brave. Or on iTunes, Google Play and/or Netflix in some regions.
There was also apparently a sequel or something by the same director, called Little Jock’s African Adventures, but I’ve only seen it on DVD, doubt it was ever broadcast anywhere, can’t find out anything about it really (I think we all just want to forget any of this happened), and am not wasting the dollar or two it’d take to buy and find out more. All I can say for sure is: it’s cheap cell-shaded stuff. It’s actually amazing that I can’t find out more than that… though I guess that speaks to the quality.
Literally all I can find about that is this:
The text on the back says this:
The classic book, Jock of the Bushveld, written by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick is the inspiration behind MacNeillie’s follow up to the animated feature. This is Little Jock’s adventures, a children’s story focussing on the puppy and the animals he meets.
Harry, Jock’s sidekick, has magical qualities which get them out of trouble as they venture through the wilds. Martha, the baboon, is set on stealing whatever ideas she can to assist in her mission to rule the world.
But everyone will soon know that our hero, little Jock, is brave, loyal and adventurous.
Are we totally sure this wasn’t all just a money laundering or Ponzi scheme like Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return was?
Victoria Falls (on her face)
Triggerfish was up next, and they were a real genuine bona fide animation studio this time, we promise, and one that didn’t go boom after their first film was done. They lost out being the first by nearly a year, with their first feature Zambezia (or Adventures in Zambezia, as it was called in some places) releasing in 2012.
The story follows Kai, a falcon who decides that he wants to live in the Great Tree- er, I mean, the bird-city of Zambezia, sitting atop Victoria Falls, where he wants to join the guard and protect them against threats and whatnot, and deal with a lizard that kidnapped his father. If that sounds pretty much exactly like Legend of the Guardians, you’re right, though I also found it copied quite liberally from Valiant (holy crap, does anyone else remember that movie?), what with the comic relief character Eezee being pretty much exactly the same as Bugsy. Plus, this came out merely a year after Rio, which would lead to comparisons between the two. It’s like how Surf’s Up was always compared to Happy Feet, because both are about penguins and came out within a year of each other, despite them not really having a lot in common beyond that. Here’s the trailer.
So… my opinion is: it’s absolutely pedestrian, as animated films go, even with people like Leonard Nimoy(!) and Samuel L. Jackson in the cast. Now don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy a stereotypical animated film more than it perhaps should be enjoyed, if it does a damn fine job of being absolutely charming, but I was bored throughout this – the story was just going through the paces, checking all the boxes, and never particularly exciting or interesting. Plus the animation is bad by 2012 standards, which isn’t always a problem for me, but compare the flying scenes of this to, say, the flight in the storm or the flight through the flames in Legend of the Guardians, and you’ll see why it’s a problem, especially since the ripping off is pretty blatant.
Reception all around was mixed-to-negative. What’s interesting to me is that, as a local, I didn’t even notice when it got released. I think almost no fuss was made about it being released, just a few reviews here and there saying it’s not that bad, but no Pixar. Is it possible that people were burned after how bad Jock was? Hard to say, but I think I only heard about it in 2013, when trailers for Khumba were touting “from the makers of Zambezia” (more on that one in a bit). It would seem nobody really cared, but it still made a profit, mostly because the budget is quite low ($20m) and nobody in the country has anywhere near as much money as the big American studios.
There was one actually great thing about it though: the birds themselves. Sure, they weren’t particularly well-animated, but, from what I can tell, all of them are actual, real species of birds found in Africa, and a lot more accurate than other animated films (Zazu, for example, looks nothing like a real red-billed hornbill, but these birds actually look pretty much exactly like their real counterparts). The villains are marabou storks, for example, and it’s actually a clever choice that showed a flash of insight, when you read about how foul they actually are, plus I’m a bit biased against them after having been chased by one at a game reserve once – thing’s damn near as tall as I am.
Look at this ugly thing. THAT is a marabou stork. It’s also about 153cm/60 inches tall. They eat meat too rancid even for vultures, and have the temperament of the crusty old men that they look like. Photo from Wikipedia.
Seeing them, knowing that there would be no other animated film that would have such species, kept me from passing out completely. Details like that show care and interest in putting something good out, I just wish the rest of it had as much passion. Still, that’s why I have great respect for animators and artists specifically on any CGI projects – even if they’re doing something awful, most of them at least try to make visual appeal with what they’ve got.
Again, you can apparently get it on Blu-Ray, iTunes and Google Play in the USA under the Adventures in Zambezia international title, or just watch it on Netflix.
To be continued…
So nice, you’ll come back twice? I hope so. The story’s only half-finished now, and I decided to split this in half for the sake of ease of writing, otherwise you’d have about 5500 words to deal with all at once.
Next time on Dogpatch Press: we go into the third and final (to date) CGI film, and then we talk about the localization of international talking animal films, including one that pretty much every one of us crazy animal people loves.
See you all again soon. – Duncan R. Piasecki
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