Valiant (2005)



A lithe Canadian beauty beat the tar out of a Disney animated feature this weekend. People opted to see Steve Carell get his chest waxed. Penguins, not the singing and dancing ones, but ordinary penguins, were a more appealing option than Valiant.

It’s easy to see why the money is going elsewhere. Valiant clocks in at just below 80 minutes, and it feels padded. The typical Disney trademarks of untested heroes, sarcastic sidekicks, and puppy love are offered, but they feel like hand-me-downs, worn ragged by Aladdin, Timon, and the rest. Nothing in Valiant is larger than life, including the villains, always a staple. Tim Curry voices an evil falcon, and his work won’t make anyone forget Jeremy Irons’ Scar anytime soon.

Really, it’s hard to imagine why Valiant didn’t go straight to DVD. It isn’t terrible, but would you pay $10 to see pigeons repeatedly collide in mid-air and to hear more than a few references to body odors? The movie is barely original, except that the topic is below the radar of public consciousness. In World War II, pigeons carried messages to the Allied Forces, and some actually received medals recognizing their service.

That’s interesting. More than a few people would probably want to learn more about that historical aspect, and that could be the basis for a tension-packed plot. With Valiant, Disney sticks to that formula of goofy nonchalance – this time without music – and the results are vexing. Here’s an opportunity to pursue a completely different direction, to teach kids some history, as well as creating a high-flying drama. Instead, we get a flatulent pigeon. Ah, progress.

The story, such as it is, focuses on an undersized but determined pigeon named Valiant (voiced by Ewan McGregor) who longs to serve in the Royal Homing Pigeon Service, the group of brave birds who deliver those important messages. On his way to the academy, he joins forces with a conniving, crafty pigeon, Bugsy (Ricky Gervais, brilliant in The Office), and they’re soon fumbling and bumbling through training with three other misfits. When the ranks of messengers become low, the trainees are forced into service for a risky mission of critical importance for the Allies.

If you like the story, then sit back and enjoy. I spent my time guessing who provided the characters’ voices and then feeling sorry the actors couldn’t find better work elsewhere. The level of talent here (John Hurt, Hugh Laurie, John Cleese, Jim Broadbent) deserves better, and so does the audience. If Disney doesn’t take creative chances with their stories and animation, they’ll continue to be ravaged (and deservedly so) by Pixar and DreamWorks SKG.

Disney’s next big animation project is Chicken Little, slated for release this fall. If it fails, both critically and commercially, the title will take on a particularly morbid tone.

DVD extras include a blooper reel and some games for the kids.

For the birds.