Valiant (review)

March of the Pigeons

No kidding, the Brits awarded 53 Dickin Medals to animals for their bravery and meritorious service during World War II… and 31 of those medals went to pigeons, who delivered messages that saved human lives, and often died in the process.

This is not the story of one of those pigeons. But it was inspired by those stalwart wartime flyers.

Valiant, a production of Britain’s Vanguard Animation, is exactly as cozily silly and as charmingly touching as you’d expect from a nation that gives medals of valor to birds. Oh, with its simple, straightforward story, it’s pretty much strictly for the kiddies: this is the standard ugly-duckling coming-of-age tale, but as anyone who was ever an awkward, insecure kid can tell you, there’s probably no kid who can’t do with one more reminder to follow your dreams and ignore the naysayers and live life the way you want to do and blah blah blah.
The trappings are cheekily retro, replete with birdy-themed wartime nostalgia: avian propaganda films, stiff-upper-beak attitudes, and heroic pigeons in aviator sunglasses. Runty little pigeon Valiant (the voice of Ewan McGregor: The Island, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) wants to join the RHPS, the Royal Homing Pigeon Service, and do his part for the war effort. (The RHPS is fictional, but Britain did have a National Pigeon Service during the war.) He’s ridiculed, of course, by everyone from his mates at the Gull and Crossbones pub — a homey little boozer set up under an overturned canoe — to the RHPS training sergeant (the voice of Jim Broadbent: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Vera Drake), but of course Valiant will prove them all wrong, save the day, and exclaim things like “It’s not the size of your wingspan but the size of your spirit!” at appropriately triumphant moments. Adults will roll their eyes, just a bit, but it’s all harmless, and the kiddies will eat up the pigeon slapstick and very mild “gross” humor: Valiant’s squad pal Bugsy (the voice of Ricky Gervais, from the original British production of The Office) is sure to be a kiddie favorite with his aversion to bathing.

Still, this isn’t one of those kiddie flicks that makes grownups want to run screaming from the theater. There’re just enough playfully groan-inducing pigeon puns to distract — “We have ways of making you squawk!” the villain, German falcon Von Talon (the voice of Tim Curry: Kinsey), hisses at his RHPS prisoner. And any devotee of animated films may want to catch this one if only for the astonishing visuals: there’s a warm, organic beauty to the CGI here that’s a step beyond anything we’ve seen yet. Wood, brick, grass, water, stone… all are touchably real, without that glossy, plastic sheen that has characterized some earlier CGI. By the time Valiant and his RHPS squad arrive in the French countryside to meet up with the underground mouse resistance — the mice are quite funny — the gorgeousness of the CGI reaches a pinnacle with a crumbling medieval church that is beyond authentic looking. (The film also features a rather scary CGI milestone: the first realistic animated plane crash.)

A bonus for adults: Fans of British comic actors will find delightful performances by some of the most accomplished names in the field here, including Hugh Laurie (Flight of the Phoenix, The Young Visiters, or, Mr. Salteena’s Plan) as the hero pigeon Gutsy, John Cleese (Around the World in 80 Days, Shrek 2) as the veteran RHPS flyer Mercury, and Rik Mayall (The Young Ones, The New Statesman) as Cufflingk, a Von Talon henchman. These are men who take their comedy seriously, which is a nice tribute in such a film as this one, a silly story about genuine animal bravery.

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