This review was corrected on Thursday, March 31, 2005
Lackluster CGI toon “Valiant” features an all-avian cast of characters and top-flight British vocal talent to spoof fondly WWII fly-boy dramas like “The Battle of Britain.” However, despite a handful of good aerial “birdfight” sequences, “Valiant” fails to get off the ground due to a by-numbers script and dodo-ugly character design that add up to less than one would expect from “Shrek” producer John H. Williams. Thanks to strong marketing in the U.K., pic looked set to soar at the B.O. in its Easter weekend opening there, but may lay an egg in the U.S. upon its August 19 release, leaving Buena Vista/Disney to feather its nest with ancillary.
Based loosely on the fact real-life carrier pigeons played a significant role during WWII, the pic plays the classic raw-recruit-becomes-a-hero story arc with a beak-featured cast. Ewan McGregor, assaying a second animated gig after “Robots,” voices young Valiant, a patriotic wood pigeon inspired by the heroic exploits of squadron leader Gutsy (Hugh Laurie) to join the Royal Homing Pigeon Service (RHPS).
In a curiously empty Trafalgar Square — pic’s budget seemingly didn’t stretch to animating extras here — Valiant meets Cockney conbird Bugsy (“The Office’s” Ricky Gervais) who ends up enlisting to evade some thuggish magpies.
Dullish midsection sees Valiant and Bugsy going through training under supervision of a hard-ass sergeant (Jim Broadbent). The lads’ feathered friends in Squad F include twittering posh bird Lofty (Pip Torrens), and muscled but dim Geordie twins Toughwood and Tailfeather (Brian Lonsdale and Dan Roberts, respectively). Slapstick flying into walls to establish ineptitude of Squad F, along with copious fart jokes courtesy of Bugsy seem to rep the pic’s idea of funny.
Clumsily intercut are scenes showing the interrogation of RHPS fighter Mercury (John Cleese) at the claws of Nazi falcon General von Talon (Tim Curry) in order to ascertain the hideout of the French Resistance.
Squadron F is finally given a mission to fly across the English Channel to collect a message from the Resistance, occasioning pic’s only truly laugh-out-loud line from a reluctant Bugsy, who offers the very David Brentish, “Maybe I’m not that conscientious, but I do object.”
Enemy attack as the bird squad crosses the Channel is exciting and competently enough animated to distract from nagging logical questions such as why, if they’re birds, do they have to take a plane and parachute into France in the first place.
Unfortunately, “Valiant’s” best bits are too few and arrive too late to amuse all but very young children and aficionados of vintage Brit war films.
Comparisons will be inevitable with Aardman Animations-DreamWorks similarly British-made, avian-themed 2000 effort “Chicken Run,” which more lightly evoked a WWII-atmosphere via reference to “The Great Escape.”
Like “Chicken Run,” “Valiant” struggles with the inherent difficulties of making bird characters both cute and, well, bird-like. Lumpy, bulgy-eyed and only recognizable as pigeons through an intense effort of will on the audience’s part, the cast of “Valiant” appears even more ungainly than “Chicken Run’s” half-hatched plasticine poultry, although CGI allows for more convincing feather textures.
Still, in terms of gags-per-reel and sheer inventiveness, the flawed but likable “Chicken Run” has the drop on old-fashioned and bland “Valiant,” which serves best to illustrate how far the bar has been raised for animated fare. In fact, the trailer for Blue Sky Studios’ “Ice Age 2” reaped the biggest laugh at the London screening caught for “Valiant.”
Vocal perfs are fine, if disappointing, given the firepower of the cast. McGregor’s warm tenor perks up Valiant, though Gervais, a performer with great improvisational gifts, seems penned in by the dry script. Curry brings characteristic brio to the main baddie role.
Rest of the tech package is serviceable, with George Fenton’s low-key but savvy mimicry of rousing WWII-era scores providing the standout element.