Without any flash-in-the-pain jokes that will be moldy by the end of the year or would-be hip pop cultural references, "Valiant," a CGI-animated British import being released by Walt Disney Studios, has little in common with America's decidedly loud and assaultive sensibilities. Or, in some cases, its ability to transcend being labeled strictly a kid's movie. Instead, the film recalls a time when Disney's traditionally animated features were more innocent and simplistic (think 1977's "The Rescuers" and 1986's "The Great Mouse Detective"), and occasionally better for it. "Valiant" makes no bones about primarily targetting single-digit audiences, and that's all right. It may not be "The Incredibles
" or "Shrek
," but it nonetheless is harmlessly diverting and visually pretty.
Loosely based upon a true event and sanitized for the Disney market (no violence, man-to-man combat or overt Nazi implications), "Valiant" takes place in the midst of Great Britain during World War II, when trained homing pigeons were used to deliver important messages between allies about any enemy movement. Despite his smaller-than-average size, Valiant (voiced by Ewan McGregor) is dead-set on doing his part for the cause. Leaving the comforts of he and his mother's barn home, Valiant enters the demanding training program led by a tough-as-nails drill sergeant (Jim Broadbent) and befriends the big, lumbering, uncleansed Bugsy (Ricky Gervais). When Bugsy is kidnapped by nasty falcon Von Talon (Tim Curry) and his pigeon-hunting cronies during the newby group's first mission, Valiant must find the courage and resourcefulness to outsmart Von Talon, save his friend and accomplish his mission to deliver the scrolled message across the English channel.
Directed by Gary Chapman, "Valiant" is fine entertainment, brightly animated and short enough (clocking in at an hour-seeming 76 minutes) to hold the attention of children and adults. It may even expose some viewers to a little-known part of history (the homing pigeons actually won thirty medals for their contribution to the war) while emulating a luscious European backdrop. The humor, which has some typical bodily function jokes including a fart gag that made me smile even as farts generally ceased being funny in movies when I was ten, is lightly comical but nothing worthy of writing home about. The exception to this rule is the pricelessly lovable and adorable Charles De Girl (Sharon Horgan), the female half of a French Resistance mouse team who single-handedly steals the picture away from everyone else involved. Charles De Girl is such a fresh and funny supporting character, one who warns the ragtag pigeons right from the get-go that they will no doubt be eaten by the falcons, that it is a shame she leaves almost as quickly as she comes. Relative film newcomer Sharon Horgan is irresistible with just about ten minutes of work. The rest of the voice talent is made up of veteran British performers, with Ewan McGregor voicing his second lead animated role this year (after "Robots
Because the story and characters are of the stock variety, it is the great animated backdrops that provides some spectacle to the proceedings, with gorgeously rendered ocean shots, a vivid and gloomy cliffside bunker that stands in for the villain's lair, an exciting climactic chase across the countryside between Valiant and Von Talon, and background scenes set in London that look so real it is almost as if they dropped computer animated characters in front of live-action surroundings. Additionally, there are small touches throughout that have fun with the idea of birds standing in for humans. For example, during training the pigeons lift weights made of apples stuck to the ends of sticks, and Valiant courts flirtatious nurse Victoria (Olivia Williams) with insect-infested flowers. Naturally, she eats the bugs and thinks nothing of throwing the flowers to the side.
Even as far as animated features go, "Valiant" is quite lightweight and easily forgotten about once it's over. While it last, though, it is congenial and pleasingly innocuous. Kids, meanwhile, who won't be there to critique, will have a good time watching the colorful images and being able to understand the vast majority of comedic fodder. Being released at an odd time of the year when schools are about to open back up, Disney may not have much faith in the commercial prospects of the UK-produced "Valiant." Yes, it is just about as conventional as these movies come save for the whole WWII angle, but there isn't much to say bad about it either. "Valiant" does its job well even without straining for a whole lot of originality, which, at the very least, is more than can be said for 2004's obnoxious "Shark Tale
" and 2005's crummy "Madagascar