Even today, British kids grow up listening to stories about life during the London Blitz and the hardships their parents and grandparents endured during the Second World War. American children, by comparison, would be hard-pressed to tell you what nations fought on which side. It's one of the many weaknesses of our education system, but it's also because the war was fought "over there," without ever spilling onto our home turf.
Given that, it's unlikely that American children will understand -- much less relate to -- Disney's latest computer-animated film, Valiant, which concerns a group of carrier pigeons who volunteer for Great Britain's Royal Homing Pigeon Service. While the film completely avoids violence -- no bombing raids, neither human nor avian carnage -- it would seem to be a rather uninteresting subject for the wee tots Disney is hoping to attract.
And why birds? Yes, carrier pigeons were vital to the war effort, but so were dogs. Perhaps the ornithological cast has more to do with the success DreamWorks enjoyed with a bunch of farmyard chickens a few years back -- but then, Valiant is no Chicken Run. While it isn't difficult to differentiate the three or four central characters, the supporting cast members are birds of a strikingly similar feather, physically and in personality. They simply aren't distinct enough from one another to make much of a fresh impression here.
The film's hero is a plucky, undersize wood pigeon named Valiant (voiced by Ewan McGregor) who, over his mother's objections, volunteers for military service. His job will be to fly vital messages to troops behind enemy lines while evading a vicious brigade of (German) falcons. Valiant and the four other members of Squad F go through basic training, but they are considered a last resort by their military superiors. When Squads A through E fail to get through enemy lines, however, Squad F is entrusted with the task.
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The team heads off across the English Channel. Valiant is considered much too small to be effective. Needless to say, he proves to be the hero of the story, although he could not have succeeded without the assistance of his comrades (as always in these films, lessons for youngsters abound). Flying through occupied France, the birds are aided by a trio of mice who are members of the French Resistance. The mice, actually, are a lot cuter than the birds, though that may be a product of their design: In this computer-generated world, fur comes off looking far more realistic than feathers.
Perhaps the most interesting bit of information is reserved for the end of the film, when the audience is informed that 54 animals who served during the Second World War received something called the Dickin Award, the animal equivalent of Britain's Victoria Cross. The medal was the idea of a woman named Maria Dickin, founder of the veterinary charity People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), and was awarded to animals who displayed "conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty" while serving with the armed forces or civil emergency services. Between 1943 and 1949, 32 pigeons, 18 dogs, three horses and a cat -- all of them British -- were recognized for their service (undoubtedly the United States had its own version). The pigeons' ability to fly and ferry messages across the English Channel might seem to make them ideal characters for this kind of film, but how much cuter it would have been to have the entire menagerie working together.
Sadly, one must review the film that was made, not the one that might have been. The voice acting here is no more than adequate. In addition to McGregor, the voice cast includes Ricky Gervais, Jim Broadbent (as a Field Marshal Montgomery type), Hugh Laurie, John Cleese, Olivia Williams (as a nursing dove who falls for Valiant), and Tim Curry (as General Von Talon, leader of the German falcons). The commanders are pretty much all blustery types and pretty much interchangeable.
Not every children's film can be Shrek -- or the wonderful Disney films of old, such as Lady and the Tramp and Bambi. But there seems little here to interest or entertain children -- and not much for their parents, either.