Ealing Studios, with an already illustrious film history in England, is taking its first big baby step into animation via Valiant, a frolicking $40 million affair made under the protective wing of Walt Disney Pictures in the hopes of jump-starting Ealing's Vanguard Animation into a full-fledged digital-animation studio. It's a thought worth keeping.
Debut entry for the two companies follows the format that Aardman Animations initiated for DreamWorks five years ago with Chicken Run, which reset The Great Escape in a British henhouse where inhabitants were pegged for the poultry market. Valiant similarly be-fowls World War II clichés by replaying The Dirty (Half) Dozen as a motley crew of misfit pigeons transformed into hero material. Labeled "Squadron F" (no doubt after "F Troop"), the improbable six are dispatched across the flak-splattered English Channel to retrieve a message from the French Resistance and deliver it to the British high command. The upshot of their efforts? "Gentlemen: A change in plans. We now land in Normandy."
There is some historical justification for this fanciful exercise. A finale footnote reveals that, of the 54 animals awarded the Dickin Medal for bravery during World War II, 32 of them were pigeons. Therein hangs a tale which George Webster curlicues into a screen story and then scripts with Jordan Katz and George Melrod. There was plenty of uncredited writing assistance (including the creatively zany Paul Zaloon), but the lines never really rise above formula to the level of wit and fun that Chicken Run enjoyed. Producer John H. Williams, who has a couple of Shreks under his belt, is likewise not up to his usual standard, but the film does rate passing marks from a technical standpoint.
The plotline follows, in its by-the-numbers fashion, the exploits of a young wood pigeon named Valiant who leaves his mother's nest determined to make his mark with the RHPS-the elite Royal Homing Pigeon Service. Along the way, he falls in with a fat, farting Trafalgar Square pigeon named Bugsy who, escaping the clutches of some aggressive magpies, trails Valiant into king-and-country service. They form one-third of a hopeless squad that is put through the most basic of basic training and then turned loose on the Nazis. Complicating their night flights over the channel is not only the enemy artillery, but a nasty armada of falcons trained to catch pigeons in their Teutonic talons.
It would have been nice to have a British teenage star doing the Valiant voice, but apparently nobody could be pried loose from the Harry Potter plant because Ewan McGregor does the part (lightly, gamely, unpretentiously). Ricky Gervais, from TV's "The Office," is the film's central dispenser of fun, playing Bugsy broadly and lovably. John Cleese is hilarious as a captured British officer refusing to surrender his empty bluster to the enemy, and Tim Curry revels in hiss-worthy villainy as the falcon chief.
Other notable participants include Hugh Laurie, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent (as a gruff drill instructor), Brian Lonsdale, Dan Roberts, Pip Torrens, Rik Mayall and Olivia Williams. First-time director Gary Chapman equips himself ably-but only ably. A valiant effort.