A relatively low-budget ($40M) UK-U.S. co-production, Valiant is the first release from Vanguard Animation, founded by Shrek producer John Williams with the aim of making computer-animated films at roughly half the cost and schedule of movies like… um… Shrek. Obviously, Williams succeeded with his budget and timeline, but he forgot the third side of the triangle: quality. Valiant is no Shrek. It isn’t even Robots.
Rooted in the traditions of the classic WWII movies, Valiant takes its inspiration from the fact that both Britain and Germany used carrier pigeons to deliver vital messages and trained peregrine falcons to hunt each other’s messenger birds. Indeed, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler was president of the German National Pigeon Society and those wacky Brits actually awarded medals to animals (especially pigeons) for acts of wartime bravery. But despite its basis in history, Valiant is less effective, less deft, and less creative than its closest relative, Chicken Run, another trans-Atlantic co-production that moved the generic conventions out of the theatre of war and so constructed a surreal small-world homage full of wit and splendid sight gags.
Of course, since the Allies won and the Germans lost, Valiant is able to strip history down to its simplest components. The pigeons are English and, forgive me, plucky. The falcons are Germans, fiendish and cruel. I’m not sure quite what we should infer from the portrayal of the French as mice or the failure of an American eagle to jet in at the last to save the day, but the requisite happy ending is never in doubt. After a series of misadventures and a well-worked chase scene, the all-important message gets through and the war is won.
As we have come to expect in these days of plenty, Valiant is visually exemplary. Its character animation and art direction paint enticing pictures on the big screen, and never more so than when the city of London forms the backdrop to the antics of our feathered heroes. Similarly, the casting is extremely solid and features a host of British luminaries. Unfortunately, the characters these actors are asked to portray resemble neither ogres nor onions. They lack layers, and no-one is ever going to care enough to cry for them. Ewan McGregor voices Valiant, an undersized pigeon patriot determined to “do his bit” for king and country while Ricky Gervais is his inevitable comedy sidekick, a traditionally scruffy-but-loveable cockney wide boy. Despite coaching from the effective McGregor, who brings previous voice-actor experience (Robots) to the table, Gervais is the weak link in the cast, so it’s a shame he’s left to carry much of the movie alone while the likes of Hugh Laurie, John Cleese and Tim Curry are restricted to minor caricatures.
The U.S. release of Valiant is a child-friendly 76 minutes long. The original UK release was 109 minutes. Even if these missing 33 minutes fill in holes in Valiant‘s cookie-cutter plot, they likely don’t contain the wit and creativity so plainly missing from the animated B-movie that remains.
In Chicken Run, Nick Park drew on a wealth of British cultural references and Hollywood classics, just as the Shrek movies made great sport with the Disney fairytale tradition. Valiant, however, seems almost scared to draw too deeply on a heritage that includes movies as excellent as The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron, and TV sitcoms as clever as Dad’s Army and ‘Allo ‘Allo, despite their overwhelming relevance. George Lucas was happy to use 633 Squadron as the inspiration for the assault on the Death Star, so why wouldn’t the makers of Valiant take more from their canon?
In the end, it’s fruitless to speculate. Though Valiant is cheerful enough, its actors, animators, and audience have all been let down by its lack of ambition.