Saturday, August 13, 2005

Review: Valiant (2005)

75 minutes
Rated G

By Scott Mendelson

In all likelihood, you've already seen Disney's Valiant. Have you ever seen a film about a young, plucky outsider who really wants to succeed in a heroic task that no one thinks that he can do? And what about when that outsider makes his mark, earns the respect of his peers, and is the only one who can save the day at a crucial point in a very important mission (usually because he's small and is the only one who can fit in a small entrance way)? From Rudolf The Red Nose Reindeer to Mulan, children's films have often told this story, with varying degrees of success. The best of this quasi-genre is still Babe, the 1995 masterpiece about a pig who learns to be a sheep-herding swine (10 years later, this Oscar nominated epic, to use sophisticated critical language, still owns you, me, and all of our lesser, pathetic souls in its iron grip of superiority! Baa-ram-ewe indeed!).

Of course, Valiant is no Babe, and you already know how it goes. It concerns Valiant (Ewan McGregor, using his natural accent), a small but plucky go-getter who wants to join other heroic pigeons in the Great Britain's Royal Air Force Homing Pigeon Service during World War II. As the film points out, the allied forces really did use animals during the war, and pigeons were vital in carrying top-secret messages. In fact, by the war's end, pigeons had been awarded 31 medals for bravery. This is 31 more than were awarded to Native American wind talkers, and the pigeons didn't have to worry about being shot if they were about to be captured. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that Valiant eventually wins the respect of his comrades and is among those sent on the most important of missions. And I'm sure I don't have to tell you that Valiant fails in his mission, all of his friends are killed, the message falls into Nazi hands, and Germany wins World War II, plunging the world into an Orwell-ion future resembling a cross between Robert Harris's 'Fatherland' and Philip Roth's 'The Plot Against America'.

Obviously, the film has zero surprises on the storytelling front, so what does it offer? Well, first off, it has an all-star cast of well-respected British thespians in all the major voices. Hugh Laurie (of House MD) gets to use his natural accent as the heroic leader of the RAFHP. Tim Curry hams it up as the evil falcon nemesis, Ricky Gervais (The Office) plays the requisite best friend torn between duty and self-preservation, and John Hurt again proves that he's still alive in a small supporting role. While the voices are fun, it can be distracting to constantly be playing 'spot the celebrity', and it is a shame that once again the top-level voice over talents (think Jeff Bennett or Frank Welker) are denied prime roles in their field over stars in a genre where the key young audience wouldn't know the difference.

What makes the film worth seeing is the matter of fact nature of the screenplay. The humor is low-key and the film opens with two pigeons dying in battle; immediately establishing the very real dramatic stakes. The requisite tearful parting of mother and son before battle is subtle and genuinely moving. Best of all, the obligatory romance (Olivia Williams plays a nurse) is handled with a minimum of condescension. And I'm curious as to whether an early reference to the Geneva Convention preventing torturous interrogation will be viewed as a partisan political statement.

Simply put, Valiant is a perfectly acceptable cartoon with charming characters, and an attempt at actual dramatic tension. But it's also painfully derivative of countless other films. It is not a bad film, and it is certainly worth dragging the family along with you for a quick matinee. But, there are other, far better cartoons out there (The Iron Giant, Spirited Away, The Emperor's New Groove) that should be further up on your 'must see' list.

Grade: B-

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