Disney unleashes the birds of war in a dodgy new import
Directed by Gary Chapman
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ricky Gervais, Tim Curry
Recent events, including a stockholder revolt and plummeting theatrical profits, would lead one to believe that Disney has painted itself into a corner.
Not long ago, the company that all but invented the cartoon declared that traditional hand-drawn animation was dead. With that declaration, Disney fired the last of its traditional animators. Shortly thereafter, Disney managed to anger and alienate Pixar, the computer animation company responsible for basically all of Disney's hits in the last 10 years (Toy Story, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles). Now, Disney is scrambling for product, relying on cheap made-in-Korea sequels to fill up its release schedule. (Disney divisions in Australia and Japan were also shut down, leaving only third-word options for the company's direct-to-video films like Tarzan II.) Disney is also searching for ways to replace the about-to-bolt Pixar. Recently, the mouse-eared megalomaniacs snapped up a computer-animated film from England's newly formed Vanguard Animation.
Valiant only goes to prove that the men and women at Pixar are geniuses. Pixar's first feature out of the gate was the still-brilliant Toy Story. Vanguard isn't quite in that league. Their first film has its moments, but is a long, long way from the perfectly formed family entertainment that was once the pride and joy of Disney.
For starters, Valiant is an extremely British film. It relates the story of a band of brave messenger pigeons, employed during World War II to carry messages across the English Channel from German-occupied France. In other words, it's the perfect film for 8-year-olds nostalgic for the era of gas rationing, air raid sirens and the Jitterbug.
Our main character here is Valiant, a tiny but patriotic wood pigeon voiced by the ubiquitous Ewan McGregor. (Seriously, is McGregor a tag-team partner with Jude Law these days? Take a vacation, boys. Leave some roles for the other Brits.) Against the protestations of his loving mum, Valiant wings his way to London, where he hopes to join the Royal Homing Pigeon Service. In Trafalger Square, our naïve hero meets up with a grubby con-man bird named Bugsy (Ricky Gervais from "The Office"), and the two are soon drafted into the corps.
The usual war-film training sequence follows, with Valiant bonding to his ragtag teammates (an upper-crust bird named Lofty and a couple thickheaded soccer hooligans named Toughwood and Tailfeather). Naturally, they're the worst squad in the entire RHPS. Naturally, it will soon be up to them to rescue a captured agent (John Cleese, having a little fun) when all the other squads are bumped off. The rest of the movie finds Valiant and his crew behind enemy lines battling an evil Nazi falcon named Von Talon (Tim Curry).
Valiant spends a bit of its time spoofing other war movies, none of which will be familiar to little tykes and few of which will be recognizable to adults on this side of the pond. Richard Lester's 1967 film How I Won The War with John Lennon is one major—if obscure--inspiration. Spoofing aside, the humor is of the solidly slapstick variety, with most jokes built around pigeons flying into walls, trees, each other. Gervais gets a few good lines in, riffing on his usual seedy character. In fact, the voice cast as a whole (including Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie, John Hurt and Rik Mayall) is unusually good.
Unfortunately, the animation is rather drab. The settings aren't nearly as claustrophobic as DreamWorks' recent Madagascar, but the textures and the character models all feel about as flat as a Playstation 2 game. Valiant isn't a bad film. In fact, it's a pretty likable little film. Like it's main character, Valiant is a plucky, good-hearted underdog. But the dull animation and the simplistic script don't exactly conspire to make it a memorable effort. ... So, is it too late to kiss up to Pixar?