2½ stars (out of four)
Feathers fly in "Valiant," Vanguard Animation's debut film about the dangerous missions of carrier pigeons during World War II. It's perhaps the first animated kids' film that can claim to be "based on a true story."
In a thrilling opening sequence, members of the Royal Homing Pigeon Service (RHPS) flap furiously to deliver vital intel for the war effort. Like death from above, enemy hawk General Von Talon (voiced by Tim Curry) swoops down to thwart them.
Director Gary Chapman's infusion of fact-paced action reveals an obsession with getting our attention and keeping it, allowing us little time to bond with his cast and emotionally attach to his characters. On this count, "Valiant" ranks as a mix of top-notch voice talents, standard computer animation and several missed story opportunities.
Ewan McGregor voices the title character, a diminutive wood pigeon whose heart is bigger than his wingspan. But the RHPS is desperate for recruits. In the words of one commander: "If we don't find some more birds fast, our goose is cooked."
Despite his size, Valiant signs on for service with Bugsy (voiced by Ricky Gervais of "The Office" fame), a bathing-averse bird who fills the manic buddy role usually reserved for Robin Williams' vocal talents. Cowardly Bugsy delivers the best laughs of the movie ("I'm not that conscientious, but I do object," he says, after getting his assignment)but he's ultimately a one-note character.
The same can be said for Valiant, who has one goal and sticks to it without much self-discovery or lessons not already learned from "The Little Engine That Could." A romance with a nursing dove (voiced by Victoria Williams) seems similarly condensed.
At 76 minutes, "Valiant" feels a little rushed. This is partly, I suspect, from the film's breakneck animation schedule. John Williams, who produced both "Shrek" movies, founded the Vanguard Animation studio with the goal of producing computer-animated films "at approximately half the cost and half the time of other major-studio CG animated films," according to "Valiant's" press kit.
The corner- and cost-cutting shows. While the overall production design doesn't suffer, it also isn't as highly stylized as competitor films (Pixar's "The Incredibles," Blue Sky's "Ice Age"), and the story could used some fine-tuning. Example: John Cleese voices Mercury, a captured pigeon of war whose only function is to provide us with a view of Von Talon's base. The French Resistance's Rollo (Buckley Collum), a wild-eyed, pyromaniac mouse who uncorks at the word "sabotage!," also seems criminally under-utilized.
Distributed by Disney's Buena Vista Pictures, "Valiant" is an experiment, an attempt to see if the company can do better than Pixar's stellar track record since "Toy Story." But the Pixar formula works. With the exception of the first "Shrek," all other efforts to compete have been, in a word, valiant, but nowhere near in Pixar's league.
Directed by Gary Chapman; screenplay by Jordan Katz and George Webster & George Melrod; cinematography by John Fenner; art direction by Carl Jones; music by George Fenton; edited by Tiffany Hillkurtz and Jim Stewart; produced by John H. Williams. A Buena Vista Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:16. MPAA rating: G.
Valiant - Ewan McGregor
Bugsy - Ricky Gervais
Von Talon - Tim Curry
Sergeant - Jim Broadbent
Gutsy - Hugh Laurie
Mercury - John Cleese
Felix - John HurtCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times