"Valiant": Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! No, wait, it's a bird.
What with the overwhelming box office domination of U.S. giants such as Pixar and Dreamworks, it’s easy to forget that animation is a global industry. Even increasingly popular Japanese anime is virtually invisible in theaters. Recently, though, British studio Aardman Animation has begun to make itself heard Stateside, scoring moderate hits with the claymation Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit films. No doubt hoping to emulate their countrymen’s success, this year Vanguard Animation, with a little help from Disney, produced the first big time British CGI feature: Valiant. Unfortunately it flew through theaters here in the blink of an eye, but you can now catch it on DVD.
Why the cold reception in the U.S.? Apart from shaky marketing and strong competition at the box office, Valiant suffered from not being particularly exceptional. In an age when audiences are accustomed to oohing and ahhing at the groundbreaking grandeur of each new CGI release Valiant is decidedly low-key, more comparable visually to 1995’s Toy Story than The Incredibles. The humor is very, very British and therefore probably far too dry and understated for the Shrek crowd. And the World War II subject matter and celebrity cast are doubtless more familiar to British viewers. In the end American audiences didn’t miss out on all that much. This tale of a plucky carrier pigeon’s trial by fire is certainly pleasant enough, but like Madagascar it has few laughs or memorable characters and is light on plot.
In the thick of WWII, young and diminutive pigeon Valiant (Ewan McGregor) is inspired by his idol, the intrepid Commander Gutsy (Hugh Laurie, House, M.D.), to leave his quiet home in the British countryside and apply to the illustrious Royal Homing Pigeon Service (RHPS). He travels to London, where he gets mixed up with odiferous con artist Bugsy (Ricky Gervais, The Office) and they manage to talk their way into the RHPS. There the crusty sergeant Monty (Jim Broadbent, Moulin Rouge!) struggles with the nearly futile task of whipping our heroes’ hapless squad into shape. In his spare time Valiant nervously woos the shapely nursing dove Victoria (Olivia Williams, Rushmore). All too soon the squad is sent off on a “highly dangerous” mission to retrieve a critical message from the French resistance. It won’t be easy, for lying in wait is an elite squad of German falcons led by the fearsome Von Talon (Tim Curry).
Although McGregor puts in a game effort, here as in Robots his amiable but bland lead is outshined by his loud comic relief friend. Like a British Robin Williams Gervais fills the movie with almost nonstop chatter of a decidedly silly and occasionally funny nature. Fans of The Office should get a real kick out of it. Over the course of the film both characters learn something about bravery and believing in oneself: “It’s not the size of your wingspan that counts, no, it’s the size of your spirit.”
The rest of the cast is very one-dimensional. Broadbent is amusing enough as one of those upper-crust gasbags he does so well, and it’s always a treat to hear John Cleese, even though he’s given little to work with as RHPS POW Mercury. Veteran scenery chewer Curry is completely wasted as the very cliché and surprisingly restrained Von Talon.
For history buffs like myself the wealth of tongue in cheek period detail is the most entertaining aspect of the film, particularly the RHPS’s faux newsreel recruiting film: “Birds on the March.” And there are a few real laughs. When told by the cynical Monty he won’t last a week, the woefully naïve Valiant beams and enthusiastically requests “Permission to die trying, sir!” During training the squad is bewildered when Monty asks them to identify a series of images as friend or foe, but unanimously declare “Friend! Friend!” when a pinup girl unexpectedly appears. In the vast French countryside Bugsy incredulously asks their resistance mouse contact how she found them and she responds, “Well, there was the plane and the explosion… and the screaming and the pleading.”
The CGI quality lags well behind recent American blockbusters. Some backgrounds are rather bare looking and movement is occasionally jerky and artificial. Most troublesome is that outside of the cuddly Valiant the bird faces are all vaguely creepy, not unlike the anthropomorphic fish in Shark Tale. That never helps sell Happy Meals. Still, if one isn’t expecting cutting edge animation the film looks good enough. Some of the realistic locations like the falcons’ bunker on the Normandy seaside appear to have jumped straight out of Saving Private Ryan.
The extras are very disappointing for a theatrical release. They’re almost insulting when compared to the lavish treatment afforded most Disney films. If you really want to buy Valiant I suggest the Region 2 version that adds a making of, interviews, and recording sessions. What we do get here is a brief, fully animated, and unfortunately unamusing blooper reel, and the “Valiant Training Challenge.”
The latter is composed of three games that may briefly amuse the kiddies. In the first you pick the correct flying formation for the squad a la Tetris so they can pass through various obstacles. Next you guide a plane over the countryside to drop the squad at the right location. Finally you steer Valiant on his exciting dash through the German trench, or at least that’s the idea. I wound up falcon food every time.
The young ones will probably find Valiant a reasonably enjoyable diversion, although it’s unlikely to become a favorite. Older viewers can pass unless, like myself, they have a real thing for British humor and WWII. Or pigeons, but, ah, unless your name is Bert, I’d rather not know about that.