Director – Gary Chapman, Screenplay – Jordan Katz, George Melrod & George Webster, Story – George Webster, Producer – John H. Williams, Photography – John Fenner, Music – George Fenton, Animation Supervisor – Richard Purdham, Production Design – John Byrne. Production Company – Vanguard Animation/Ealing Studios/UK Film Council/Odyssey Motion Pictures/Take 5 Partnership
Ewan McGregor (Valiant), Ricky Gervais (Bugsy), Tim Curry (Von Talon), Jim Broadbent (Sergeant Monty), Hugh Laurie (Wing Commander Gutsy), John Cleese (Mercury), Olivia Williams (Victoria), Pip Torrens (Lofty Thaddeus Worthington Pigeon), Brian Lonsdale (Toughwood), Dan Roberts (Tailfeather), Rik Mayall (Cufflingk), Michael Schlingmann (Underlingk), Sharon Horgan (Charles De Girl), John Hurt (Felix), Buckley Collum (Rollo), Harriet Jones (Barmaid)
May 1944. Carrier pigeons are vital to the British war effort in carrying messages back from the resistance movement in France. However, enemy falcons are massacring all carrier pigeons on their way back across the Channel. The Royal Homing Pigeon Service realizes that more conscripts are needed. During a nationwide recruiting drive, the young undersized Valiant becomes excited about joining the force. He flies to London to sign up and gets in, despite his size, with the help of the roguish Bugsy. The two of them are put through intensive training, however the troupe are considered so bungling as to be completely useless. With all other pigeons killed, the top brass have no choice but to throw them into the frontline on a dangerous mission. They are parachuted in over wartorn France. When the mission goes wrong and Bugsy is captured with vital information, Valiant is the only one that can save the day.
The British animated film is somewhat of a rarity. England has produced various animated films before including those for children – Animal Farm (1954), The Water Babies (1978), Freddie as F.R.O.7 (1992), Once Upon a Forest (1993), The Princess and the Goblin (1993) and Gnomeo & Juliet (2011), as well as Martin Gates’s films like The Snow Queen (1995), Jack and the Beanstalk (1997) and The Ugly Duckling (1997), and a handful of oddities for adults – Yellow Submarine (1968), When the Wind Blows (1986). The majority of these have struggled to compete in the international marketplace alongside Disney and other Hollywood animated product, let alone in many cases to even obtain an American release. The most successful of these was probably the lovely Watership Down (1978). Otherwise to find successes in British animation, one would have to go to animated tv series like Paddington Bear (1974-84), Danger Mouse (1981-92), Postman Pat (1981– ), Thomas the Tank Engine (1984– ), Budgie the Little Helicopter (1995), Bob the Builder (1999-2004) and Captain Scarlet (2005). Although beyond traditional hand drawn animation and into the arena of dimensional clay animation, there has been the amazing success of Britain’s Aardman Animation studios with their various shorts and films like Chicken Run (2000) and Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).
Though much of the animation comes from an American company, Vanguard Animation, Valiant is one British attempt to compete in the CGI animation stakes alongside the likes of Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, Blue Sky Studios et al. Valiant emerges as a fair and competent effort. It is not another Toy Story (1995) or a Finding Nemo (2003), it comes more down around the level of a perfectly acceptable film like DreamWorks’ Madagascar (2005).
Valiant was not a huge hit in the US but one suspects that this was more due to its very Britishness. The accents and colloquialisms are all British and the film centres around the Allied Resistance effort during the Second World War, a crucial era that forms a deep chasm underlying the 20th Century British zeitgeist but rarely the American one in the same way. (The same take – talking birds involved in an heroic effort that was modelled after the Wartime struggle – also formed the basis of Chicken Run).
Valiant falls into predictable arcs – the tiny hero eventually getting to prove his worth, the misfits coming together in spite of their screw-ups, the cowardly Bugsy discovering loyalty and duty over cowardice and so on. The script offers a mind-boggling array of bird-related puns, more than one thought it possible to make. The characters are likeable with The Office (2001-3)’s Ricky Gervais shining as the show’s artful dodger type and John Cleese having a ball as a captured pigeon being given truth serum. Valiant also has its share of demented moments – like a scene where John Cleese’s prisoner is tortured by yodelling, dancing Nazi falcons; or where a lovestruck Valiant brings a flower to his lady love who thanks him for bringing her favourite and then eats the bug off the flower. The caricatures of the French resistance – the women resistance fighter who has been named Charles De Girl (after the famous Wartime French general Charles De Gaulle) because she is the only girl in the organization – are rather funny.
Vanguard manage a reasonably competent showing in the CGI animation department without finding the need to constantly bombard us with how artistically dazzling they can be as many of the efforts from the aforementioned other studios often try to do. There are a couple of expectedly big dramatic sequences near the end with the capture of the pigeons by the falcons and Valiant’s pursuit by Von Talon across the British countryside at the very end, which one feels are there because the genre demands them. Mostly, Valiant is commendable in its likeably unassuming modesty.