by David Cornelius
I’m a sucker for, among other things: the Second World War; Britain’s involvement in such; the 1940s in general; cartoons in which the adorable underdog does good/saves the day/realizes his worth. “Valiant,” produced by Vanguard Animation and released Stateside by Disney (more on that in a smidge), mashes together all of these things, and it does so, if not spectacularly, then at least pleasantly. This is not a top grade animated effort, but it is a sweet, enjoyable one.Before we talk about the movie, let’s talk about Disney. It’s obvious now that they’re feeling the pressure over their impending loss of Pixar - not only are they hyping their upcoming CGI effort “Chicken Little” to no end, but they’ve also picked up this British production, slapped the Disney label on it, and hoped that the branding would help get audiences thinking “Disney” and “CG animation” without thinking “Pixar.” Obviously, Disney was hoping to repeat the business of “Chicken Run” (which was undoubtedly the inspiration for this picture) without actually having to do any of the work.
"Cute, sweet, delightful, and other adjectives of that sort."
Perhaps feeling as if American kids wouldn’t be able to sit through anything longer than “Home On the Range,” Disney trimmed over half an hour from the film’s running time. And perhaps they were put off by the film’s lukewarm reception during its initial UK theatrical run, as they wound up dumping the film into American theaters with very little fanfare (the absence of promotion is even more noticeable when compared to Disney’s aggressive efforts with even its most minor releases). The combination seemed to prove deadly to the film, as it tanked domestically both critically and commercially.
But here’s the thing: it’s actually a pretty decent little film. Sure, the big name voice cast (which includes heavyweights Ewan McGregor, Ricky Gervais, Jim Broadbent, Tim Curry, John Cleese, and Hugh Laurie) gives the impression that this will be a gigantic effort, an impression the film cannot match. But viewed as a modest, unassuming work, the film is a success.
Our hero, Valiant (McGregor), is an undersized pigeon yearning to do his part for King and Country during WWII. He ventures off to London, runs into con-bird Bugsy (Gervais), and the two wind up volunteering for the Royal Homing Pigeon Force. After some brief training, where it becomes clear that their small regiment is your gang of typical misfits and such, the heroes set off on their mission, retrieving an important message from the French Resistance and returning it to London. Against them is a particularly evil falcon (Curry) and his particularly evil henchmen.
There are no surprises here, to be honest. We know the moment we meet Valiant that not only will he save the day, but he’ll probably use his size (“you need to be Yea high, and you’re not even Hey high”) to his advantage. And yet, despite the predictability and the dependency on formula, “Valiant” still managed to win me over.
There’s an eagerness to the performance of the title character, both from McGregor and from the animation team, that’s infectious. Valiant’s spunk may be customary cartoon-hero stuff, but that doesn’t make the bird any less lovable. Admit it: a teeny pigeon with an oversized army helet? That’s cute. Meanwhile, a few of the supporting characters may be too dispensable (two burly brother pigeons are reduced to background filler), but the film does find some strength in Gervais’ charming rogue, as well as in the adorable members of the French Resistance, Mouse Division. (Perhaps it would have been too crude a joke to make them frogs…)
The animation itself comes off rather subdued; compared to the eye-popping nature of most CG cartoons these days, the choice for a more muted look is a curious one. But then we see images as the war-ravaged French countryside, or the stormy English Channel, or a bleak German bunker, and we realize that the softer look of the piece works. The character animation isn’t as impressive as the set design, but considering the overall design of the movie, this is forgivable.
A final thought. Many critics complained that they didn’t think kids would “get” the references to World War II, and therefore would not “get” the story. This, I feel, underestimates the intelligence of children. Older kids, if they have not yet studied the Second World War in school, will be able to pick up enough history here to get them asking their parents about it after the credits roll; these questions will hopefully be boosted by a title card during the finale that thoughtfully details the history of England’s Dickin Medal, given to animals during the war. Younger viewers, meanwhile, to whom mass warfare is still (thankfully) a foreign idea, will simply go with the notion of Valiant and his friends working to stop the bad guys. The story moves briskly enough that a knowledge of history will help with the finer points but is not mandatory to completely follow the plot. To the youngest viewers, this is an enjoyable adventure yarn. They can pick up the historical references later.I’d very much like to see the original 109-minute version of this film, but as it stands, Disney’s 76-minute edit works surprisingly well. The characters are a delight, the action is brisk, the comedy is breezy, the animation is occasionally involving. As a quaint kiddie spin on World War II, “Valiant” offers up the goods.
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originally posted: 08/24/05 16:07:25