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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The entire “Jock of the Bushveld” is on YouTube under the “Jock the Hero Dog” title.
So is “Zambezia”, but dubbed in Spanish.
YouTube has the trailer for “Zambezia” in English.
Yeah, I’ve seen marabou storks at the Los Angeles Zoo. Ugly!!!
I assume you will get to “Khumba” in the next part. Here is the trailer.
YouTube also has the complete “Khumba” dubbed in Hindi.
All three are available on DVD on Amazon.
Wikipedia has a good article on Triggerfish Animation Studios.
I reviewed a South African s-f novel, “Zoo City”, that has intelligent but not talking animals in it. Has “Zoo City” been filmed in South Africa?
Khumba is coming in the next part, yes… I just cut the article here because that was about half-way in both word count and sectional division. Otherwise it was going to be very long… there was more to talk about with Khumba than I thought there would be going in.
Anyway, I wasn’t sure that sharing a YouTube link to the films in their entirety was the, uh, best idea, but I found Zambezia in English on YouTube as well (though I’m not sure that the link will work for everyone):
I can’t say I know about any film adaptation of “Zoo City”, but apparently one was in the works in 2013. No idea what happened to it though, and nobody else seems to know either, but safe to say that it never materialized.
Nope. The YouTube link to the complete “Zambezia” movie gets a notice of “This video contains content from Sony Pictures Movies & Shows, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.” In other words, buy the licensed DVD in the U.S.
Actually, I had no trouble with “bushveld”. I was introduced to the word when I was 10 or 11, in a Ray Bradbury s-f short story; only he called it “The Veldt” (with a “t”). I still recommend it highly. (It isn’t anthropomorphic, though.)
I admit that, from America, it’s easy to conflate the animated movies from South Africa with the animated movies from Australia. They’re all for children with exotic animals. Australia has koalas and kangaroos; South Africa has zebras and meerkats.
You imply that no South African publisher is interested in anything but safe novels “but in Africa”. Have you tried Jacana Media in Johannesburg? It published “Zoo City”, which is pretty far-out.
I can’t say Jacana Media rings a bell offhand, nor have I ever heard of “Zoo City”. Go figure, must be a bit more underground. Then again, publishing isn’t exactly my area of expertise, so I trust your knowledge. Having a look on their website though, I spotted a book that caused a big stir earlier this year for being a badly written, completely unedited mess that they actually had to recall en masse and the stores had to offer full refunds as a result, so that doesn’t exactly scream credibility for me (and I would never have even heard of the book had it not been for the fuss). Granted, self-publishing has its problems too (I’m admittedly also a pretty terrible editor of my own work), but that doesn’t exactly bode well for them selling themselves as “professional” publishers.
The point does stand from the perspective outside of the industry though – the big publishers, who are VERY dominant, only really put out stuff that has mass market appeal to the local market – and it’s very hard to find anything that’s not published by them in book shops. We don’t really have small, independent bookshops here, just large chain ones or smaller textbook specialists, so it’s all about corporate domination for the most part. The local literature, unless it’s a classic or an already massive author that has an international publisher, is usually shoved into one small corner and nobody ever goes there (I never do, at least, because I don’t have a high expectations, and I’m a pretty fussy reader), and the massive hits from local authors are only ever lowest-common-denominator safe options, like the aforementioned “Spud”.
Indeed, Zoo City” is transgressive literature, which isn’t really common there perhaps outside of a few massive things like “Breaking Bad”, but that’s also fairly usual and arguably “safe” for here, or at least a proven formula for success for this country – “Tsotsi”, our one Oscar-winning film, was also about criminality in Johannesburg, and real-life criminality is a massive problem here, so it’s a fairly accessible subject for locals.
Further, writing about not-Africa things is a no-go for publishers from here, it seems… I mean, “Zoo City” was set in Johannesburg and starred African people, which fits exactly into the “uniquely African stories by African writers” line that publishers here go on about day-in, day-out, even if it’s pretty far out. Writing about, say, Europe, is a death knell for trying to get published here, because the publishers feel that it’s up to the Europeans to do that (ironic, since I’m half-European myself, if the surname wasn’t a dead giveaway).
Plus, the other problem is that even the big publishers here don’t guarantee international spread – if you get published by Penguin in the USA or the UK, you’re almost guaranteed to be seen in other countries via exporting, if not localized imprints. If Penguin publishes you here, you can still get rejected by Penguin overseas. It’s not ideal, and I feel it’s unfair and annoying.
The last point, for my particular genre inclinations at least, is that there is, as far as I know, almost no market for postmodern literature here, since it’s quite a niche genre that I’ve usually seen looks of disgust or confusion at when trying to explain an example of to other people. For instance, for many years, I struggled to put together my collection of Chuck Palahniuk novels, and I eventually had to import a few at greater expense than usual (but one came signed by the author, so it ended up worth it). You can find his C-format just-published books easily enough, but then very few of the cheaper B-format are imported.
I’m maybe a little bit overly harsh, haha. No matter, as I said, I’m writing from my perspective on the matter, limited as that may be, and with no real expertise. Still, American publishers, for the problems that I have with the vast amounts of awful “literature” they put out on a daily basis, at least allow for more freedom to write about what you want, in the setting you want. That freedom doesn’t really exist here, from everything I’ve seen on publisher submission webpages.
I enjoyed “Zoo City”. It’s a well-written and unique blend of fantasy, science-fiction, and murder mystery/crime thriller. The British edition won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best s-f novel in 2011, and there has been an American edition. I read it from the Los Angeles Public Library.
But, as you say, it’s set in Johannesburg. I assume that if it weren’t for its South African setting, its high literary quality wouldn’t be enough to have gotten it accepted by a South African publisher. I also assume that your novels aren’t furry lit, or you could offer them to some of the furry specialty publishers. They only pay pennies, but that’s better than paying for self-publishing, or not getting published at all.