After wowing international audiences, Adventures in Zambezia is coming home to roost. The first 3D animation film made in SA opens in the country's cinemas just after Christmas.

3Danimation

A high-spirited but naïve young falcon will soon be the talk of the town. South Africa's first locally produced animated 3D film, Adventures in Zambezia, hits the local big screens on 28 December, after receiving rave reviews internationally.

Set in the bustling bird city on the edge of the majestic Victoria Falls, the film centres on a young falcon, who leaves his father to seek his fortune in Zambezia, where he discovers the truth about his origins and, in defending the city, learns how to be part of a community.

The movie, produced by Cape Town's Triggerfish Animation Studios, cost an estimated R173-million ($20-million). It had its world première at France's Annecy Animation Festival in June 2012 and has already been sold in over 50 countries, including a distribution deal in English-speaking territories with Sony, according to Triggerfish.

In an interview with CNN, the movie's director and co-writer Wayne Thornley said: "The film is a wonderful ambassador, in a way, of South Africa and I think as it travels the world it's going to spread the word about an industry that is young and vibrant and extremely talented.

"In and of itself, I think it's just an enjoyable ride for children and they're going to come away wishing they could fly," he added. Thornley explained that the movie was guided by the traditional African principle of ubuntu, which he described roughly as "a person is a person only because of other people". Its heart-warming theme would resonate with African and international audiences.

"Everyone can relate to that idea that it's better, it's easier to do things together, that teams are just more vibrant and get more things done," he said. "They are difficult and messy and it's not always easy but it is worth it. I think that's a universal theme and I hope that audiences around the world come away with that kind of message going: it's safer to stay alone but it's not better."

The concept for the movie was born about seven years ago, and production took just over two years. Adventures in Zambezia was "probably the biggest budget animated film ever to come out of anywhere in Africa", Thornley said, adding that working with top Hollywood stars was "an honour" and "really fun".

"It was gratifying that they treated it seriously like any project," he added. "We tend to think of ourselves that we're this little studio but they were fantastic and it was really a great experience."

Thornley explained that South Africa's animation industry was still young and small but it was "definitely punching above its weight".

"I want people to sit back and have a fantastic time with the characters and have a fantastic insight into some of the amazing African landscapes that we've put into this film ... But also I want them to come away really surprised that something like that could come out of Africa and South Africa in particular."

The story

Kai (Jeremy Suarez), a high-spirited falcon on the cusp of adulthood, is bored and lonely. He lives in a remote outpost with only his strict father, Tendai (Samuel L Jackson), for company. Forbidden from venturing beyond the Katungu Boundary, his suspicions that there must be more to life are confirmed when Gogo, a stork, and her co-pilot, Tini, crash into his world.

From them, Kai learns that downriver is a bustling bird city with exciting opportunities for a talented flier such as himself. In an angry exchange with his father, Kai discovers that Tendai has known about Zambezia all along, and has even been there himself. Hurt and angry at his father's betrayal, Kai leaves Katungu and travels downriver.

Arriving at the famed bird city – a majestic baobab perched on the edge of Victoria Falls – Kai is amazed by the throngs of birds from all over Africa who are busy preparing for the Spring Celebration. He soon befriends a fast-talking nightjar called Ezee (Jamal Mixon) who knows how to enjoy the perks of community life and guides him through the city. Kai is bowled over when he meets Zoe (Abigail Breslin), who is the adopted daughter of Sekhuru (Leonard Nimoy), Zambezia's founder.

Unfortunately for him, Kai doesn't make a good first impression when he accidently ruins her Spring Celebration decorations. But he is thrilled when his skilful flying earns him a place on the Hurricanes, the elite defence patrol made up of the best fliers on Zambezia.

But unbeknown to him and the rest of the Zambezians, marabou storks, tired of scavenging off the scraps of Zambezia, have joined forces with Budzo, a vicious egg-eating leguaan, and hatched a plan to take control of the island city. To make matters worse, Budzo captures Kai's father and all of the weavers, including Tini. To save his city and his father, Kai has to face his past and learn that no matter how fast and talented a flier he is, no bird is an island.

Adventures in Zambezia, written by Anthony Silverston, Raffaella Delle Donne, Andrew Cook and Wayne Thornley, and directed by Wayne Thornley, also stars Jeff Goldblum as Ajax, Richard E Grant as Cecil, Jenifer Lewis as Gogo and Jim Cummings as Budzo.

Annie Awards

And the film has been nominated for two Annie Awards, the first time in the history of the Annies that a studio from Africa has cracked the nomination list. Adventures in Zambezia has been nominated for Best Music – by local composer Bruce Retief – and Jim Cummings has scooped a nomination for Best Voice Artist. He voices the villain, Budzo.

The Annies, handed out in Hollywood, are the most prestigious awards in the animation industry, and are coveted by all the major studios. Executive producer and studio head Stuart Forrest is particularly proud that the film is the only independent animation to be nominated in both categories. Its competition comes from animation leaders like Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Sony, Blue Sky and Illumination.

The awards will be handed out in Los Angeles on 2 February 2013.