The British do love their animals—so much so that, during World War II, they created a special award for birds and mammals that had served their country with valor. This award, called the Dickin Medal, was given to over 50 creatures during the war and its aftermath, and more than half of the recipients were pigeons. Yes, pigeons. In this age of encrypted e-mail attachments, it may be difficult to believe that the fate of nations once hinged (and so recently, at that) on birds carrying tiny bits of paper across the English Channel. But it did, and this nugget of historical fact gives Valiant—an animated film about a handful of birds who join the Royal Homing Pigeon Service, or RHPS—an extra nostalgic cachet.
The hero of this film is Valiant (voice of Ewan McGregor), a small wood pigeon who dreams of flying risky missions and proving his mettle alongside the bigger, brawnier likes of his idol, the stiff-upper-beak Wing Commander Gutsy (Stuart Little's Hugh Laurie). Valiant heads for London, where he meets Bugsy (The Office's Ricky Gervais), a smelly, grubby con artist who is so attached to the flies that swarm about his head that he's given them names. When Valiant goes to enlist in the RHPS, Bugsy tags along, but only because he has to dodge a couple of birds he has just tricked out of their seeds—and before Bugsy can talk his way out of his new assignment, he and Valiant are both sent off to boot camp.
What follows is an affectionate send-up of war-movie tropes, many of them given a cute or clever small-animal twist. Instead of running through a maze of tires, the birds must fly through tires swinging from a branch. When the pigeons lift weights, their barbells are made of apples and other fruit. When Valiant brings Victoria (Olivia Williams)—a dove, like all the other pretty nurses—a bouquet consisting of one single but rather large dandelion, she thanks him enthusiastically, but not for the reason we might think she's thanking him. And the ability of pigeons to regurgitate the items they swallow becomes a key plot point.
The pigeons' training is never really completed. The camp's drill sergeant (Jim Broadbent) is still working on this hapless bunch when Gutsy arrives and says he needs to send the new recruits on an urgent mission into occupied territory. And so, after the sergeant sends them off with a rousing pep talk that's a little heavy on the possible costs of battle ("Tomorrow, our innards may be spread like jam on toast …"), the pigeons are flown into France, where they must meet up with the Resistance, retrieve a message, and take it back to base.
And while they do all this, the pigeons must also watch out for evil German falcons. Unlike a number of recent cartoons, like Finding Nemo, in which the line between good carnivorous activity and bad carnivorous activity has become increasingly blurred and arbitrary, Valiant comes from a more old-fashioned school of thought. Here, the falcons who prey on the talking birds are the bad guys, plain and simple; meanwhile, it's okay for our heroes to eat worms, because worms are just speechless animals, and not persons like you and me.
The falcons, alas, are one of this film's weaker elements. As a general rule of thumb, even comedies work better when we can believe that the villains are truly menacing. But when the villains are portrayed as mere buffoons, it becomes difficult to take the story seriously; we begin to suspect that nothing is really at stake, and thus, instead of entering into the world of the story, we stand outside the story and watch it from a distance.
And so it is with General Von Talon, the falcon leader whose really bad fake-German accent is provided by The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Tim Curry. Sure, it's fun when Von Talon tells a captured pigeon named Mercury (John Cleese), "Vee haf vays of making you squawk!" But his preferred method of torture—exposing Mercury to yodeling records—is about as threatening as the "comfy chair" the cardinals used in Monty Python's old "Spanish Inquisition" sketches. And as Von Talon fusses over the colors of his leather capes, it becomes impossible to accept him as anything other than a harmless exercise in camp.
Other characters and situations could have been more developed, too. For example, one of the mice we meet in the French Resistance goes absolutely nuts whenever he hears the word "sabotage"—he grabs a matchstick from his belt in each hand, lights them, and leaps around the room like Daffy Duck in his earlier, loonier years, only a bit more psychotic. Our first encounter with this character promises to send the film into truly wacky territory, but there's no real pay-off in the scenes that follow. Similarly, one of the birds undergoes a change of heart that feels sudden and obligatory; it feels like this change was imposed on the script, rather than something that grows naturally out of the bird's character.
There is still much to enjoy here, though, from the note-perfect newsreels produced by the "Department of Pigeon Propaganda" to the dark, explosive sequence in which the plane carrying the pigeons into France is hit by enemy fire. (The film's formal, stylized rendering of humans and their vehicles is actually somewhat reminiscent of the propaganda cartoons Walt Disney made during the war.) I also got a kick out of the old bird in Valiant's hometown whose peg leg consists of a pencil stub. Valiant is nowhere near as good as Chicken Run (which similarly mixed avian puns with British memories of the war), and it's not as clever as Robots (the last cartoon to star McGregor as the voice of an eager young lad who leaves the nest, as it were, and sets out to make his mark on the world). But for parents who are tired of the hip, stupid bombast of films like Shark Tale, it'll do.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Valiant says it's not the size of your wingspan, but the size of your spirit, that counts. Do you agree? How do people treat Valiant because of his size? Does being small actually give him an advantage? If you are small for your age, how has this worked in your favor?
- Bugsy says he wants to go back to Trafalgar Square, and he doesn't want to be involved in the war because he didn't make the machines with which the war is fought. Valiant replies, "But we didn't make Trafalgar Square either. And where do we go when the bombs start falling there?" If you were Valiant, how would you have answered Bugsy? If you were Bugsy, how would you have answered Valiant? What responsibilities do we have, to our society or to our world, simply because it was made by other people?
- What do you think of the British practice of awarding medals to animals? Is it absurd? Is it a way of honoring creation? Recognizing a debt? Does it require us to treat animals as if they were humans? Does it help us to acknowledge our connectedness to God's creation?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Valiant is rated G. Very young children might be scared by some of the battle scenes—bullet holes appear in a plane's fuselage, and falcons pursue the pigeons at several points along the way. One pigeon is kept prisoner in a birdcage littered with bones. There is a fair bit of body humor, in the form of burps, smelly armpits and at least one bit of flatulence, most of which are due to the character Bugsy. Bugsy also makes some va-va-va-voom remarks to the female characters he meets, as well as a gratuitous remark about prayers never being answered, but this last one zips by so quickly most kids might miss it.
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Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 08/25/05
Is Disney trying to encourage young moviegoers to dream about joining the military? Their latest CGI feature, Valiant, celebrates the derring-do of a pigeon (voiced by Ewan McGregor) who aspires to join the Royal Homing Pigeon Service (RHPS) during World War II. Other talents lending their voices include John Cleese, Tim Curry, Ricky Gervais, and Hugh Laurie.
Tom Neven (Plugged In) is more severely disappointed. "I watched Valiant in a theater three-quarters full of children, and I heard nary a laugh throughout. … [It's] a puzzling movie. It depends on a grasp of history likely to be missing in its target audience. That wouldn't be a fatal error if this was otherwise a compelling story with compelling characters, but unfortunately it falls flat on both accounts. … C.S. Lewis said, 'A children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story.' This not-so-finely feathered fare doesn't even reach that standard."
"Compared with recent animated films like Shrek and Finding Nemo, the writing and characters in Valiant are a little thin in the plumage," writes David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). But that doesn't stop him from recommending it. "Despite its flaws, Valiant imparts a positive self-esteem message that 'it's not the size of your wingspan, but the size of your spirit.' With it getting harder to find family entertainment that doesn't sneak in age-inappropriate content, Valiant is one movie that won't ruffle many parents' feathers."
Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says it's "fun for children to get a glimpse—albeit a toned down, animated one—at what World War II must have felt like, with realness, humor, and romance sprinkled in amongst the very real losses and dangers of an important period of history. … The morality tale is good for children, too. … The movie has a good showdown between good and evil, cleverly woven through the framework of slapstick, charming dialogue and admirable effects."
Mainstream critics call Valiant "poorly plotted" and "suspense-free."from Film Forum, 09/01/05
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "Suitable yet uninspired. That about sums up Valiant, a children's film parents may find themselves wishing that they liked much more than they actually do."
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