A young wannabe private eye takes on rhino poachers in this charming family adventure set in Eswatini. Coming across like a post-colonial Famous Five yarn, Safari Detective is a simple little mystery that isn’t afraid to demonstrate a harder edge on occasion, but otherwise provides a gentle gateway to the genre for young viewers.

Thabo (Litlhohonolofatso Litlhakayane) is an 11-year-old boy who lives on a safari park. When his ranger uncle is arrested on flimsy charges for the murder of a rhino for its horn, Thabo and his friends, Sifoso (Kumkani Pilonti), Sifoso’s little brother and sister Pilot and Lemonade (Nissi Bodibe and Vutihari Sibise), and Emma (Ava Skuratowski), a young girl from Germany visiting her aunt, set out to find the real culprit.

Safari Detective is an easy film to warm to. It’s winningly acted by its young cast, and it’s gorgeously shot, highlighting the natural beauty of the plains. But it takes pains to establish the dangers from both nature and man. This lack of sentiment extends to its young heroes. Both Thabo and Sifoso have lost parents to Aids, and while Thabo has is uncle, Sifoso – only slightly older than Thabo – is the sole caregiver for his little siblings. Director Mara Eibl-Eibesfeldt also doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences of the illegal trade in rhino horns. This willingness to add some grit also makes it far from certain that the children’s investigate will be free of actual threat.

The young actors deal with the twists and turns of the lithe, but easy-to-follow story. Their performances feel natural, and while they’re bright and resourceful, they’re still prone to childishness lapses in judgment and leaps of logic that take them down blind alleys. They all bring something to the table, but little Vutihari Sibise so thoroughly steals every scene she’s in as Lemonade, the youngest member of the group, that you begin to feel Thabo should investigate her next.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s film has its message of conservation and environmental protection to the fore, and because it’s aimed towards a younger demographic its directness is a strength rather than a failing. It occasionally stumbles between the amiability of the adventure and its darker elements. There is enough threat established that the adults’ hands-off approach to the kids’ enquiries inches towards negligent for example, but otherwise Safari Detective does a good job of combining a serious and urgent message with a big-hearted, charming good time.

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