Talking Animal Films in South Africa (Part 2)
by Duncan R. Piasecki
Previously on Dogpatch Press: Part 1 gave a look at some background information on the nature of storytelling in South Africa, and then had a look at the close contest between the first two CGI features made in the country, as well as the contest to come in first and set the mood. I really recommend you go back and read that article before this one, as this will make a lot more sense with that information in mind.
This time, 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.
Let’s get right to it, then.
Kumbaya my lord
Here we come to, to date at least, the last of the animated films to be made by this country: Khumba. Triggerfish obviously had more success with Zambezia than I thought, the budget seemed to be a lot bigger suddenly. It looked better, passable by international standards even. It was acted better (Liam frigging Neeson? Aslan, Alfred Kinsey, Master Qui-Gon Jinn? Sign me the hell up). There was more tonal and directional clarity. This would ultimately be both a good and a bad thing.
The story, however, was still pretty iffy. It’s sorta inevitable that movies set in Africa will be compared to The Lion King, this being no exception. A bit unfair, because it wasn’t really like it much, but it was like something else. Let me set the scene for you: a herd of zebra live near a lake of water, but there has been a massive drought. An unusual young’un is born with a socially-frowned-upon deformity (missing half of his stripes). The herd, being superstitious, rejects him and blames him for their troubles. He, therefore, sees no choice but to head out into the great wild, away from the protection of his herd, and solve the issue.
Anyone? If you said that’s basically the same plot as Happy Feet, well, I have respect for you knowing that underrated gem of a film. Yes, it’s basically a knock-off of that, through an African lens. It’s not a 1:1 copy, there are other elements (like a leopard that wants to eat Khumba, because the assumption is that his stripes indicate supernatural power or somesuch). — Trailer time:
Reception was a lot better than the previous films all-around, but still only really mixed or average. A lot more fuss was made about it, too – actual adverts on the television, merchandise, and even several mobile games, the main one of which even went so far as Steam Greenlight and was even actually greenlit… but never released on the platform. Videogame development in this country does actually also happen, but it’s quite rare, and only a handful of titles have ever actually been made, as it’s not always seen as “serious work”, despite the international gaming titles being quite successful generally. That might be a story for another time, though.
So I thought it was… fine? It was better than the other two films by a wide margin, not that the bar was set very high. I happen to really like Happy Feet, so it’s hard for me not to compare the two and see that George Miller’s work was far, far superior. Still, if this was the direction the industry was going in, it’s not something to complain about, though it still needs a lot of work. At least it tried to be clever in a lot of ways that aren’t complete nonsense – for example, half-striped zebras are (or were, rather) a real thing: they were called quagga, and were a subspecies of zebra that went extinct in the late 1800s. Khumba there is something of an inverted one – actually, there’s a recent project to breed zebras that look like Khumba as a way of sort-of reintroducing quagga-lookalikes into the wild.
A stuffed quagga at Naturkunde Museum, Berlin. Photo from Wikipedia.
As I said before, it’s little details like that that suggest someone actually wanted to put effort in, and that often makes the difference that elevates something from passable to decent, at least to me. It doesn’t always make up for the shortcomings, but it only ever helps.
Yes, it’s also on Blu-Ray and digital platforms to own or watch in many places, you know the deal.
I need to backtrack now: I said that the clarity helped it be a better movie, but there were also issues. That clarity meant that there was an embracing of a local flavour that was a lot fresher, but it no doubt caused problems. For example, I want you to watch this clip quickly:
Did that make any sense to most of you? No? Now this wouldn’t be a problem if you weren’t trying to sell the movie overseas, but considering they were, well, there’s a problem: this relies on understanding culture and stereotypes. For starters, you’d have to know that the national rugby team is called the Springboks (which is what these things are), and then understand that these characters represent a stereotype of the type of person who watches and plays the game of rugby (Afrikaaner men, who stereotypically have those sorts of names, speak with that accent and in that manner, and with those slang terms). Plus, you’d have to know a bit about rugby to get the joke about the fact that they’re scrumming (a thing that I don’t even begin to understand about how the game works – it involves crouching down and slamming into the other team to try gain control over the ball – yeah, this game’s just uncivilized, barely-justified violence).
I’m sure there are some people who would get it, but most people outside of the country wouldn’t. Your mileage may vary on how much of a problem that is, but it could be. Then again, I read The Adventures of Asterix despite not being French and not understanding the French history jokes, and enjoy it thoroughly anyway, so perhaps it’s not all-important. Perhaps translation is key there, though, since careful work is done to make sure it still works, and there isn’t really any way to properly convey all of the humour in the above clip without significant alteration, and likely changing the joke entirely. It’s a bit of a problem when you have that problem within one language, nevermind what happens across other languages.
Which raises an interesting point: the film was also released in both Zulu and Afrikaans. The joke above would likely have translated into both because of the cultural stereotyping understood, but that’s getting a bit off the point. So, here’s the exact same trailer as above (but in Afrikaans this time), and part of the above clip (but in Zulu this time), so you have an idea of what that’s like:
There’s something more to be said about this than the logistics of joke translation across cultures and languages though: it was actually the first, last, and only animated film created in this country to date that was available in languages other than English when released at the cinema, which is actually a big deal, and pretty insane to think about, if you go back and look at the statistics above. It was not, however, the only film that would be available as such – the country caught a bit of a bug for translating animated movies.
Local(ization) is lekker
Of course, we don’t just make our own films, we at least still manage to get the good talking animal films as well, often in English as well, despite it being only the fourth-most common language in the country. Not always though.
Also before you ask about the heading of this section: “local is lekker” is one of those dumb propaganda phrases they throw at us all the time. The word “lekker” is an annoying, shallow Afrikaans word that is equivalent to “nice” – both in meaning and general vapidity.
So yeah, Khumba was the one local animated film to do it, but there were a few other odd ones. The not-much-liked 2012 Russian animated film The Snow Queen was, bafflingly enough, released in cinemas here only in Afrikaans. I believe it was mostly done because an Afrikaans TV channel bought the rights cheap, and there is some demand for Afrikaans children’s entertainment – often, Afrikaans parents take their kids to see animated movies, but if they’re young and don’t know English, they get bored easily (to my chagrin when all tensed up over the asylum scene in Zootopia, and there are kids running around the theatre). The sequel followed the pattern again a year ago. The Snow Queen and its various sequels only tangentially furry though – most of the characters are human, but there are furry, uh, troll things (or something that’s sorta maybe kinda supposed to be furry appeal???) that are, from what I can gather, the main focus of the second one, so trailer for that one, and not much more lingering:
Of all random things, Maya the Bee Movie was also released in both Afrikaans and Zulu, and bug furries (if reptiles are scalies, and birds are featheries, what do we officially call those?) are a thing, so there’s probably furry appeal in this too, at least since it’s anthropomorphization. I cannot for the life of me figure out why they decided on this film specifically. Maybe I’m just totally out of touch with what the really youngers like?
While Khumba seems to have started this new trend of having CGI films dubbed into local languages, and could be seen as a modern pioneer of it, it actually somewhat owes a debt to a far older, more famous dub… and yes, I’ve dragged this out until the end because I knew this would be the thing everyone would want to know about. A massively popular film that spawned a whole generation of furries, widely loved by all.
Yes, I’m talking about The Lion King.
Let’s get back on track: the Zulu dub was probably the first ever foreign film to be dubbed into the language, as it happened in 1994 and was mere months after the end of Apartheid, and the Apartheid-era government was not really keen on doing much for certain sectors of the populace. It was also released in cinemas, I think at the time and also definitely when the 3D cinematic re-release happened a few years ago as well.
Actually, we need to talk about something here that most foreigners wouldn’t know. The film has at least two African-language dubs: Swahili (another ethnic group and their language of the same name, located further north in Kenya and surrounds) being the other one. What makes this weird is that, actually, the English version of the film had both languages in it already. I don’t think I need to tell some of you that “hakuna matata” is a Swahili phrase, but what almost nobody knows (due to how incomprehensible it is even to many locals) is that the opening lines of Circle of Life are Zulu. Here’s the whole sequence in full Zulu so you can hear that fact for yourself:
I can’t speak for the inverse, whether the introduction was translated into Swahili, but I can guess probably not, since the phrase hakuna matata was still used untranslated in the Zulu version. Not necessarily a complaint, but one of those weird little things you’d have to be in the know to know, you know?
You’re probably tired of my blabbing about this and want more, so here’s I Just Can’t Wait to be King:
That segues nicely into something you’re probably wondering: how good or direct are the translations? Well, I have no idea about most of it, Zulu went above my head most of my time and my Afrikaans is really weak generally. I can understand snippets of both, but not much. The titles are all basically exactly identical. The Lion King was translated into Zulu as Inkosi ibhubesi, inkosi = king, ibubesi = lion, so literally king lion. Sneeukoningin: sneeu = snow; koning = king; so koningin = female version, or “queen” in other words; so that all makes snow queen. uMaya Inyosi iMovie and Maya die By, for the Zulu: inyosi = bee, the “u-” at the beginning of her name and the “i-” at the beginning of “movie” is a feature of the language that I can’t even begin to explain the reasons for; for the Afrikaans: die = the; by = bee. The snippets I can understand from the various Lion King videos above also denote fairly direct translation: for instance, in Zazu’s rant in the middle of the song I caught the word sebenzi, which means “to work” – so not absolutely the same, but with very similar meaning within the confines of what the language can reasonably express within the timeframe given (“Out of service…” etc). I haven’t seen the others, and I’ve only seen Khumba in English a really long time ago, so that’s as far as I can speak on the matter.
Well that got way longer and way more out of hand than I was expecting it to.
Perhaps I’m spoiled a bit here by my knowledge. I’m a bit unusually cosmopolitan as far as South Africans go (I mean, I’m a furry after all – there’s probably less than 500 of us in the whole country, and I’ve certainly never met another one in person anywhere here), but still, some of this seems inexcusable. We get American and European films down here, everyone should know better than to keep doing this, and yet they do it anyway. It’s unfortunate that some of these films have to represent the abilities of the country as a whole, as I’m sure there are a lot of talented people who could do much better.
If this country had never got any of these things, and the only way to see a Disney film was through some kind of bootlegged VHS copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy from one that someone smuggled in, I could be forgiving, because we wouldn’t know better as a public. Yet, here we are, blatant copying of things, and not in the postmodern way of understanding how to properly play with things and inverting and tweaking them to new ironic ends, oh no, just continuing the “X, but in Africa!” trend and mindset that I feel suffocates all true creative voices in the country.
At any rate, I hope you found that interesting, hearing about a piece of semi-furry culture you probably never knew about. But also, uh, sorry for some of what you just had to see.
FADE TO BLACK — “WHERE ARE THEY NOW?” MONTAGE BEGINS
Triggerfish is still chugging along and making movies, television, short films and whatnot. They have announced two films currently in production: Seal Team, a talking animal film about the battle for survival between seals and sharks, and Sea Monster, an adventure film set off the coast of a fishing village that we know little to nothing else about. They ran a story development competition in conjunction with Disney, where people pitched ideas, got selected for a very selective exclusive story lab, and the grand prize was an option on the screenplay, but nothing more has been said since that apparently finished.
Duncan MacNeillie has not been heard from since whatever that last thing he did was. Nobody to this day knows why he decided to help adapt the same book three times, and royally screw it up the third time despite supposedly knowing better from the first or even second damn time. All we’ll ever know is: it got worse each time, somehow. He’s probably not missed.
– Duncan R. Piasecki