It probably sounded like a good idea to do a loopy animated movie that would be a takeoff on all the British films about intrepid World War II fliers, with lovable homing pigeons (actually used by the Brits during the war) replacing the human pilots. (In the planning stages it must have seemed like a brilliantly-conceived follow-up to “Chicken Run,” which took “The Great Escape” as its model.) Unfortunately, a number of things conspire to make “Valiant”–the title character is the pint-sized bird, derided when he joins the squad, that becomes a hero–an almost complete misfire. The story is blandly formulaic, the humor heavy-handed (limited mostly to birds falling down or slamming into things), the characters colorless bores, and the animation–apart from a few flying sequences–simply unattractive. Those are pretty serious flaws, and because of them this pigeon’s as dead as a dodo.
Even famous voice talent can’t breathe much life into the tepid material cooked up by Jordan Katz, George Webster and George Melrod, who seem to have been aiming for the eccentric flavor characteristic of the old Ealing Studios (appropriate, perhaps, since the newly-revived Ealing is one of the production partners). Ewan McGregor provides the voice for little Valiant, a rustic runt, dazzled by the stature of the stiff-upper-lip pigeons in the service, who flies to London to enlist. There he takes up with a purported comic sidekick called Bugsy (Ricky Gervais), the obligatory con-man and reluctant enlistee who provides most of the requisite humor about stinkiness in all its forms, and the other members of their green squad, effete aristocrat Lofty (Pip Torrens) and big, dimwitted Toughwood (Brian Lonsdale) and Tailfeather (Dan Roberts). The tough-talking Sergeant (Jim Broadbent) tries to get them into shape for service–providing an opportunity for plenty of Three Stooges-style ineptitude–but they’re forced to take on an important mission before their training is complete, and soon they’ve crashed in occupied France and link up with the mouse contingent of the French resistance, rodents that pass along an urgent message for them to take back to England. Unfortunately, there are foes to contend with in the form of nasty German falcon General Von Talon (Tim Curry) and his two bungling aides. Still, Valiant proves his mettle not only by carrying the message back across the Channel–one that has an absurd consequence, to be sure–but by freeing a captured pigeon called Mercury (John Cleese) from Von Talon’s clutches and evading the falcon’s final effort to stop him. And there just happens to be a dove nurse waiting for him back at the base.
When even veterans Cleese and Curry can’t instill any life into their tired lines, what can one expect of McGregor, whose blandness infects “Valiant” just as it did “Robots” earlier this year? (Maybe he’s just not cut out for voice work, but he’s only partially to blame for the fact that Val is so pallid a creature.) Still, even if the movie’s doomed by its script to a sort of tedious mediocrity, it might have looked better than it does. The avian figures on display here aren’t cute; in fact, they’re rather ugly, and the relatively bleached-out color palette in most of the scenes (apart from some of those in the rural English countryside) gives them a dull, greyish cast (not only in the ersatz newsreel that opens the movie, “Citizen Kane”-style). One might also point to the serious underpopulation of the backgrounds. Even in Trafalgar Square there are absolutely no people about. (An establishing shot shows some buses and cars, but the human form is conspicuously absent throughout.) George Fenton’s score, unfortunately, fits the picture all too well: it seems second-hand, too.
There’s one moment in “Valiant” that hits home. It comes when the title character makes a typically klutzy move and follows up with the line, “I’m terribly sorry, I’m Valiant.” At least that can be taken as a proper British apology for this kiddie-sized turkey.