by Randall | December 20, 2005 11:57 pm
Vanguard Animation (August 19, 2005), Buena Vista Home Entertainment (December 13, 2005), single disc, 76 mins plus supplements, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen,
Dolby Digital 5.1, Rated G, Retail: $29.99
A young bird has dreams of glory as he trains to become a carrier pigeon during World War II.
Vanguard Animation is a new player on the block, but its founder is no newbie. John H. Williams had already produced the Shrek movies for DreamWorks when he set up Vanguard in London. Certainly, he had had success with Shrek, but he had a desire to make his mark in a different way, producing a computer-animated film that would not require a 9-figure investment. Ever since The Lion King scored huge, Hollywood studios have been chasing after the next animated blockbuster. This has led to a number of overly managed, overblown, vanilla-flavored movies that have featured some nice eye candy but have often left viewers feeling either otherwise unimpressed or simply exhausted. Williams, on the other hand, just wanted to make a nice little animated film.
While this movie may not change the world, its hero does manage to change the course of World War II by the end of Valiant. The film is based on the historical fact that the efforts of carrier pigeons saved many lives during the Second World War. Whoever came up with the idea of using this as a premise for an animated film had a great idea. Juxtaposition of animals and adventure has long been a staple of animated movies and shorts, so a movie about carrier pigeons during WWII is a natural. Fortunately, the execution of the film is pretty good too.
The film opens over the English Channel in 1944. Three carrier pigeons are attacked and apparently killed by an enemy falcon. A newsreel is then seen, which smartly explains the role of pigeons in the Allied war effort. A little pigeon named Valiant (Ewan McGregor) sees the newsreel and is inspired to sign up his services for England. Just then, in walks Britain’s greatest pigeon hero, Gutsy (Stuart Little’s Hugh Laurie, sporting his real accent and not the American accent he uses on House). He offers gentle encouragement to Valiant, despite the jeers of others. Soon, Valiant says farewell to his mother and travels to London.
Meanwhile, we find out that one of the three birds presumed killed over the Channel survived (John Cleese), and is made a prisoner of war. He is held by General Von Talon (Tim Curry, managing to sound less like Tim Curry than usual). The rest of the cast begins to appear, as Valiant meets Bugsy, a smelly and useless pigeon who spends his time hustling other birds with shell games. Through a nearly predictable chain of events, Bugsy escapes the wrath of some his victims with Valiant, and they both hook up with the military. The two of them join three other pigeons, and together the five of them form Squad F, the last hope of a desperate nation.
So begins perhaps the weakest part of the film, an all-too-typical montage of new-recruits-in-training. Certainly, it is meant to evoke and parody similar sections of other movies, but was more derivative and full of clichés than any other part of Valiant. Also jammed in here is the requisite love story, with love blooming between Valiant and an army nurse (a dove). The movie picks up steam again when the fellows find out that they will very soon be hurried off on a mission, after every other squad is assumedly captured or killed in action. Before you know it, we’re off to occupied France, where the pigeons must meet up with the Resistance in order to obtain a message that will turn the tide of the War.
After this, it’s non-stop action, with Valiant and his friends completing not only that mission, but also taking on Von Talon in his own headquarters and staging a rescue. The finale, as Valiant approaches England, is fairly thrilling and staged as well as any other animated film ending. When Valiant achieves his goal, so does the movie. I really felt for the little guy when he came out on top. At the end of the film, I had no ill feelings about having watched a low-budget film; Valiant soars, plain and simple.
This film has a great many things going for it. The script, though not necessarily hilarious, is consistently amusing and gentle-natured, and is delivered by a superb voice cast (see the audio section below). There is nary a trace of cynicism or harshness about the movie, which is something considering that is features a Nazi bad guy. At the same time, it avoids being overly cute or sentimental, generally offering a genuine quality that is refreshing (the one exception being the aforementioned training scenes). It may seem tepid to some when compared to the brashness of other modern films, but I liked it.
Incidentally, even though the villain is obviously a Nazi, the term is never used, nor is the country of the enemy named. Some may charge that this was done to avoid offense in these overly-PC times, but to me it was fitting since these birds did not necessarily have patriotic feelings as much as they were motivated by protecting what was right and decent.
One area where I was disappointed was in the portrayal of Valiant’s squad members. Bugsy certainly gets lots of screen time, with a reasonably fleshed-out personality, but the other three fellows barely exist. One, a prissy fellow named Lofty, does stand out a bit, but I never did get any feeling of knowing the other two… whatever their names were. And Bugsy made a point of mentioning how his flies were always with him, but they come and go throughout the movie. The French resistance, portrayed as mice (is there some subtext there?), fare better. Charles DeGirl is horribly named, but she does make an impression at least. And Rollo is charmingly crazy as the sabotage expert who carries matches with him at all times.
The movie thankfully avoids overly childish humor, with just a couple of burps and one fart. The tone of the film stays consistent, suitable for family viewing— not too scary for little ones, yet not too dopey for adults. I much prefer this approach to the committee-made films that alternate between innuendo and stupidity. Vanguard should be applauded for a fine first effort. Disney rightfully picked up this film for distribution, although the promotion was not present to the same level of a film that comes straight from the Mouse House. So, while Valiant had a modest run in theaters, hopefully many more will come to appreciate it on DVD.
This is essentially a movie-only disc, given the lack of any bonus features being devoted to the making of this film.
Sure, you get a boatload of Sneak Peaks (Lady And The Tramp, The Wild— looking remarkably like Madagascar!—, The Shaggy Dog, Studio Ghibli DVDs, Kronk’s New Groove, Sky High, Bambi II, and Power Rangers SPD), but there is almost nothing else on here. You get less than a minute of not-too-funny Bloopers, and a Valiant Training Challenge Game of middling interest.
There’s no audio commentary, no featurettes, and no artwork— not even a trailer for the movie! Every other Disney DVD from the past few months has the Valiant trailer, but not this disc! I know the film was no blockbuster, but the paucity of extras was disappointing. A lot of talented people worked on this film, and it would have been nice to hear from them.
The animation and imagery done for the film is top-notch, if not quite as spectacular as that seen in Pixar or PDI productions. I would, however, rank it above that seen in Ice Age and certainly far above Jimmy Neutron. I would even venture to say that I was more impressed by the birds in this movie than I was by the insects of Antz or A Bug’s Life (admittedly technology has come along since then). The 1.85:1 anamorphic image on the DVD is outstanding, and close to reference quality. There was a total absence of digital artifacts from what I could see, and no edge enhancement to speak of. The compression work was done very well, thanks in part to allowing the film to be spread across two layers.
The 5.1 track is very good, offering a nice array of sound effects that will give your speakers a reasonable workout. The sound mix may fall short of being spectacular, but then this wasn’t meant to be Saving Private Ryan. French and Spanish tracks are also offered, as well as English subtitles for the hearing impaired.
The voice cast is a fine group, led by Ewan McGregor as Valiant. He provides the right amount of earnestness for the part, and he is complemented well by Ricky Gervais’ cockney take on Bugsy. Tim Curry does a good job, too, keeping away from the annoying renditions he has sometimes done (like on Wild Thornberrys), and much of the time I forgot it was he doing the villain. John Cleese, of course, is always entertaining, and he makes the most of his lines as the captured bird Mercury, especially when he is being questioned by the General while under the influence of overly effective truth serum. I really appreciated how Hugh Laurie got to play Gutsy, allowing him to be heroic enough to justify Valiant’s adoration, but still not eclipsing Valiant himself. The score, by George Fenton, is serviceable, providing just what the film needs and nothing more.
Keep in mind that this is a modest production, and you will likely be pleased with the results of Vanguard’s first film. I was confused by some earlier reviews of this movie, which complain about all manner of things: too confusing for kids (my kid liked it just fine), not “savvy” enough (personally, I am coming to hate “hip and savvy” animated films), or too mediocre. Hey, guys, it’s just a nice little movie! It tells an adventurous story in a straightforward style, with better animation that you might expect. True, I may not remember Valiant a year from now, but for 76 minutes last night I enjoyed myself. Not every film has to be groundbreaking or “hip”. It seems that anything not as commercially crass or obnoxious as certain other animated films from the majors gets a critical drubbing, and that’s a shame. So, I encourage you to try this one yourself, and enjoy a little old-fashioned moviemaking.
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