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Alex Stroup, editor


The year's first bird movie from Disney

Friday, August 18, 2005
by Alex Stroup, MousePlanet editor

Valiant is a movie with a bit of confusion behind it. People seeing the commercials aren't sure who made the movie. It seems to be coming from Disney, but the commercials promote Shrek and Shrek 2, movies made by arch-rival Dreamworks. As the trailers say, Valiant is by the producer of those movies and many seem to assume that means Jeffrey Katzenberg. Needless to say, it isn't likely that Disney will be distributing a movie made by Katzenberg.

The producer in question is John H. Williams, who left PDI (the Dreamworks version of Pixar) and has since left that company, returned to his native England and opened up a completely new computer animation studio by the name of Vanguard Pictures. That's all irrelevant to whether you should see this movie, but it is good to clear up any confusion. Disney has a four-picture deal with Vanguard, so get used to Disney pitching movies from the producer of Shrek 2.

At its core, Valiant has a story that could be compelling, and even educational. Valiant (voice by Ewan McGregor) is an undersized homing pigeon eager to join the Royal Homing Pigeon Service and help fight the Nazi threat during World War II. A German falcon named Von Talon (Tim Curry) guards the English Channel and is quickly thinning the ranks of the RHPS by killing or capturing pigeons returning from the front lines. This forces the leadership to push Valiant's group of misfit recruits into action earlier than expected.

© 2005 Disney/Vanguard Animation UK Limited/UK Film Council. All rights reserved.

This is certainly a more compelling story than normally found in animated movies, and one that has worked in countless live-action war movies. Sadly, it is just too watered down to present any real drama. The movie is set in World War II without ever giving any sense of what World War II was, without giving a sense of what is compelling Valiant's patriotism or makes it worth him risking death.

Attempts to find humor also fail. As with so many war movies, the unit in which Valiant finds himself is a ragtag group of misfits and malcontents. Bugsy (Ricky Gervais) is a con artist who accidentally volunteers; he is also a very dirty bird with a posse of flies. Felix (John Hurt) is a snob who thinks himself better than his fellow recruits. The other two birds in the unit are lunkhead brothers (I can't even be bothered to remember their names) who can be counted on to provide some muscle in a moment of need.

This type of unit construction is hardly novel in war movies, but the common element of movies in which it works is that time is taken to develop the characters. At 76 minutes (including lengthy CGI credits) there just isn't enough time for that kind of nonsense. Each character cliché is presented and the audience is asked to fill in all the information about them and how they'll interact. Even the more explicit jokes fall flat (in a torture scene instruments of pain or passed on in favor of… yodeling) and the pop culture references so common in the non-Pixar CGI movies are tired—can it be agreed that it is time to retire the astronaut walk from The Right Stuff?

Those who regret the current focus on computer animation at the exclusion of traditional animation techniques (including myself) are often heard to say that it isn't the method, it's the story that drives success. So it is too bad that Valiant does such a hash job with the story. It would have been nice to see if good story could overcome mediocre computer animation. If it turns out that mediocre story combined with mediocre animation can still produce a big hit, then it is time to give up and admit that audiences don't care at all about anything other than the method in which the pictures are produced.

© 2005 Disney/Vanguard Animation UK Limited/UK Film Council. All rights reserved.

Valiant may be a tough enough bird to be a war hero but he is not going to get Vanguard off to the rousing start that Toy Story provided Pixar. By appearances, Vanguard may have have purchased their equipment from Pixar's Toy Story yard sale. The animation seems to at about that level of technology, which was amazing a decade ago, but not so much in 2005. Animating pigeons must be an incredible challenge, but in the difficulty of rendering small feathers and color-shifting iridescence is also an opportunity to amaze. An opportunity lost, however. Color and lighting feel static and backgrounds are flat, if occasionally gorgeous. Efforts to animate water misfire, somehow looking like large lumps of clay, perhaps from nearby Aardman Animations, famous for its claymation.

All of this makes the movie sound irremediably awful, which Valiant isn't. It simply never achieves much more than mediocrity in any area; not cringe inducing but yawn inducing. For parents seeking a clean family outing to the theater, Valiant is a blandly unobjectionable option. Other than one scene where a plane flies through antiaircraft fire there are no scenes too intense for younger children, but the same lack of action will probably be slightly boring to older children. The characters are all of that starkly drawn cliché quality that sometimes works so well with children to the perplexity of adults.

Vanguards next film is something called Phreex and is due out in 2007. It seems safe to expect that when those commercials start, they too, will still say "from the producer of Shrek 2" rather than "from the producer of Valiant."

Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.


Valiant is a Walt Disney Pictures release.


Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted “information junkie,” Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.

Click here to contact Alex.


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