With Vanguard’s Valiant being distributed without much fanfare through Walt Disney Pictures, audiences may seem split on what to expect from the new studio’s debut movie and whether it’s worth the bucks to go and see it. Commenting on the UK release of the film from a few months ago, here’s what Animated News’ Ben Simon thought of the film:
Valiant Flies High
With the Mouse House’s deal with the Lamp still adrift in uncertain waters, the studio has made no bones about the fact they they’re quite willing and happy to look for their CGI fixes elsewhere. The studio’s own Chicken Little marks the first foray into the totally computer animated realm for them, after years of “tradigital” films including the part-live-action Dinosaur, while co-pro pacts with other studios will boost their profiles and help Disney secure even more of the market.
Valiant, a lower-than-usual budgeted adventure, picked up a lot of buzz when it went into production due to the fact that it was being produced by John H. Williams – he of (much touted on the posters) Shrek and Shrek 2 fame – and being made not by DreamWorks in LA, but by his own, newly opened facility in London’s Ealing Studios, home to many classic Alec Guinness comedies of the past. Williams, as has been quoted in many recent articles, didn’t feel that high quality animation had to be as expensive as was being churned out by Disney and their fairly new competitors, and began a quest to tell Valiant’s story on a smaller scale, but with just as big a look as his Hollywood counterparts. Think of it as a computer animated spin on the Aardman model, which took a further step of familiarity when Vangaurd were also able to secure a first look deal with a studio giant, though in this case it was Disney, and not DreamWorks, providing the exposure.
A fun little World War II-set tale based around the fact that homing pigeons were really used during the war effort to deliver important coded messages, Valiant pretty much follows the standard rules of army-based comedy for the first half an hour or so, with the usual misfits and nitwits signing up or being forced into ranks to serve their country. Young Valiant, provided with a voice by Ewan McGregor that has much more gusto in it than his tired and lifeless readings in Robots, is eager to learn the ropes and get stuck into a dangerous mission, and gets his chance when Squadron Leader Mercury (John Cleese, in the truly funniest role he’s played in years) goes missing and must be rescued from the German’s own feathered foes, the Falcon Brigade…
Overall, Valiant could be said to be pitched much more to the lower aged audience demographic, but the performances and some of the lines will strictly be relished by the adults. There’s a lot of “aahhh” factor in the film, something that McGregor plays on with his unflappably enthusiastic and sweet natured turn as the title hero. After a lot of the more commercial/pop culture referenced and overblown CGI features of late (Shark Tale and Robots especially), I was actually surprised in many ways, having gone in with the popular pre-conceived idea that because it was British and low-budget it couldn’t have been any good, but seeing Valiant felt quite refreshing!
The animation is good, though there are the odd awkward character moments, and for me it seemed that the eyebrows never had enough elasticity, which could be from the limited points in the CG models. There is the occasional hiccup of a bad shot, but even these are just about serviceable, and still aces batter than what passes as CGI on TV and direct-to-video releases these days. In other places, there are absolutely top-notch moments that will bring fresh admiration for this still new technique and may even impress those who might have doubted Vanguard’s long-term credentials and ambitions. It couldn’t quite be pegged at Pixar or DreamWorks level, obviously, but Valiant surely attains the level of Blue Sky’s Ice Age and is certainly no embarrassment.
Director Gary Chapman keeps things moving, but doesn’t resort to the overuse of a moving camera that can mar these types of films so much, so it retains a cinematic feel, helped by good framing that fills, but never clutters, the 1.85:1 ratio. I wasn’t crazy on the designs of the characters when they were first revealed, but Valiant himself seems to have gone through a softening down of sorts, and seeing these birds in action is a lot more satisfying – they do have real character.
Although it’s mainly strong across the board, any inconsistency in the animation is definitely overcome by what I felt was a very sharp script, written by Jordan Katz, George Webster and George Melrod, who come to the project without much in the way of comedy experience. Maybe they were saving it all up, as there’s some funny stuff here, which will hopefully appeal to American audiences as much as it played well with the Brits. Things have been kept remarkably “strictly British”, both in the design and in the cast (as opposed to throwing in an American voice, a la Mel Gibson in Chicken Run), but should remain accessible to all, especially Ricky Gervais’ Cockney wideboy, who’s act may still seem hot in the US, but has proved himself to be fairly limited with his new show here in the UK.
So…that’s the good stuff. What about the knocks? Well, my main gripe was with the villain, voiced by rent-an-animation-bad guy Tim Curry. Though he got passed the initial “uh oh” of my worries, he’s played these kind of animated villain roles so much in the past that they all basically become the same character, and his laugh here was pure Long John Silver in the Muppet’s Treasure Island. However, he does give his Falcon Nazi character (don’t worry – nothing too gritty for the kids!) a nice German twisted accent, which gets the vocals away from being just another Curry-for-the-money voice, so not so bad, though he doesn’t quite get the comeuppance that you want in the end…
Other than that, the other thing that surely places this otherwise “valiant attempt” a couple of notches down the animation pole is the lack of background movement, specifically: people. The whole tale is told at pigeon level, as in the Tom and Jerry cartoon, which is fun but it would have been nice to have more of a human population. There are shots where a few folks will be in the background, but there are plenty of others (the Trafalgar Square opening, the French village stop-off, the battle ship fly-by) where the lack of bodies is very noticeable. I wasn’t expecting fully featured, big close ups, but just some silhouetted squads in the backgrounds on establisher shots, or token civilians in the streets. The scenery felt very bare without them there, and the just about passable vehicles that rush by don’t quite cut it.
Vanguard’s first feature is a heartily enjoyable ride, if a little old fashioned (in a very good way). Don’t go in expecting another Incredibles outing from Pixar and try to overlook the much used pigeon-collision and flatulence gags, and you’ll no doubt have a lot of fun. It packs a lot into its 76 minutes, and don’t forget that there is a reason Disney picked this up after all.
With all the hype already starting for the Mouse’s next feathered hero, the much more generically styled Chicken Little, I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney’s race for “most entertaining animated bird feature” of the year ultimately goes to a pigeon rather than the chicken! Enjoy!