Movie review: 'The Donkey King' (2018)
The Donkey King (trailer) is a computer-animated comedy film, and the fifth animated feature from Pakistan. Originally released in 2018 in the Urdu language, an English dub was released in 2020. It was written and directed by Aziz Jindani, and produced by Talisman Studios.
It broke box office records in Pakistan, though I'm mystified as to how, because to me it's not a good film. Maybe its target audience had different expectations, or there were cultural reasons, which, if any, have been lost in the English dub. Don't watch this movie.
The premise starts with King Khan, a lion who rules over a city of anthropomorphic animals. He wants to retire, but his son, Prince Shazad, wouldn't be a good replacement. Miss Fitna, his treacherous fox advisor, proposes that a new king should be chosen democratically in an election …which is not how monarchies work. Her plan involves deposing the king so she can manipulate someone in his place, specifically the film's protagonist, a donkey named Mangu.
Mangu is difficult to like. He's an idiot, though a nice guy at heart. What else can be said about him… uhh, I'm struggling here. He washes clothes for a living, there's a giant hole in his front teeth, he has solid hooves instead of fingers, and he keeps getting visited by the ghost of his father. That's about it. He's voiced by Kenneth Knox. To be honest, I didn't really like any of the characters. Except for a single rhino court official, despite his weird obsession with push-ups.
Miss Fitna, the antagonist, has unclear motives. This makes her plans feel unnecessarily complicated. She seems to be working for a human - the only one in the film - who wears a mask, and only communicates with threatening growls and maniacal laughter. Apparently this is a mixed human-and-anthro world, with absolutely no explanation.
I really don't understand what this film is trying to do, nor for what audience. If it's a comedy, it's pretty dumb. If it's political satire, the English dub lacks any depth or meaning. Maybe it's trying to satirize how people get manipulated by rumors, the mass media, and the Internet? Except it makes everyone look astoundingly gullible and idiotic. All it takes to change public opinion is to casually mention something to a single person, and suddenly everyone agrees. Characters are obsessed with Facebook and taking selfies. The guiding principles of the local news channel are "Speak evil, Hear evil, and Show evil".
I guess the film is for kids? With a weird focus on politics. I kept thinking there might be an attraction for adults, so I experimented by turning off the sound. The visual gags and the pacing look too simplistic for adults, or maybe things were lost in translation. Speaking of which, it feels like only part of the English translation was true to the original (when it mattered), and dumb filler dialog was inserted for everything else. This led to ignoring cultural references, like a visual gag that confused the Urdu word for "donkey" (gadhā) with "mattress" (gaddā).
In another case, the translation was completely wrong. Mangu refers to an unrelated character as his uncle, which makes no sense, unless you know that in India and Pakistan, "uncle" is used as a polite term of respect towards an elder man. The translator obviously had no understanding of the cultural context, and took it literally. And there were other things that western audiences would probably not know about, like the meme of the DDLJ train scene. (Which was also used in Roadside Romeo.)
There are a couple of songs. The worst one is at the start; its only lyric, "Washing the clothes", is chanted over fifty times in a row. Later on there's a song battle between Mangu and Prince Shazad. At the time, I thought the English dub must have utterly destroyed whatever the original sounded like. I was wrong, the original sounded just as vapid.
The animation quality is mixed. Outside of the main characters, the same animal models are re-used again and again, changing how they're dressed. Sometimes there's lots of detail put into the environments, and other times there's not. In one scene, the king is making a speech to a huge audience, and the animators didn't even bother to make the crowd look in his direction! The next scene fixes the problem… at least for the people in the foreground. Arrgh.
Crowds largely consist of anthro goats, bulls, hippos, chimps wearing hats, donkeys, and sometimes other animals. There's a little species-related humor, but not much. The angle of the camera occasionally does something interesting; that was nice. The fact that I was noticing camera angles is a sign of how much I wanted to find something to like.
The English dub's voice acting is so-so. There's a distinct cartoony feel to most of the dialog; no one speaks in a way that feels realistic. Miss Fitna repeatedly breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience. During the songs, either there's a lack of singing talent among the cast, or the actors were doing a bad job on purpose.
Overall, I did not enjoy this film. I was desperate to be doing anything else; I had to watch it in segments. Everything about it was disappointingly stupid. The evil plan, the ending… ugh. Reading about the film was more interesting than the film itself, and took less time. Apparently its popularity in Pakistan caused some conservative feathers to ruffle; some suggested that the king was a disrespectful mockery of the country's Prime Minister.
Well, if you're curious and have nothing better to do, you can find The Donkey King on Amazon Prime Video. And, if you want a clear indication of how much its promoters ignored the film's opinion of social media, there's an Instagram account.