'Valiant' effort never takes flight

Animal heroes. Tons of British vocal talent. Disney. A sure recipe for success, right? But it all goes fowl.

According to a message at the end of "Valiant," carrier pigeons saved thousands of lives during World War II. Between 1943 and 1949, the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals awarded the birds 32 Dickin Medals - the top honors given to animal heroes. (Eighteen went to dogs, three to horses, and one to a cat.)

Unfortunately, a Noah's Ark full of animal heroes couldn't save this movie.

Valiant, a small but forceful fowl (voiced by Ewan McGregor), has aspirations to join the Royal Homing Pigeon Service (RHPS) and serve Britain. With the royal fleet under attack by enemy falcons - who don't make particularly effective villains - the RHPS is looking for a few good pigeons. What they get are some bad-news birds.

"Valiant," a Disney release directed by Gary Chapman and produced by John Williams, who brought us both "Shrek" films, is filled with loads of wily British vocal talent: the chipper Mr. McGregor, Ricky Gervais of "The Office," Jim Broadbent, John Cleese, Tim Curry, and Hugh Laurie.

The British brand of humor is more subtle than your average Hollywood animated flick, which often goes for the belly laugh. But unlike the terrific claymation film "Chicken Run" (2000), here the jokes largely lay eggs. What's more, for the American ear, the accents tend to meld into one another, making it difficult to distinguish one bird from the next.

It doesn't help that the pigeons are animated in such a way that they don't have especially original attributes. Bugsy (voiced by Gervais) has personal hygiene issues, so flies are always hanging around him à la Looney Tunes; a cutie patootie nursing dove, Valiant's love interest, just has to blush to look darling. And the film's manufactured message - "It's not the size of your wingspan, it's the size of your spirit" - is for the birds.

It's not a good sign when two members of the French Resistance Mouse Division - an aggressive lady rodent named Charles de Girl and her rotund friend, Rollo - show up to save the day and wind up stealing the show.

The growing sophistication of animation has encouraged audiences to expect more intelligence, wit, and attention to detail from cartoons these days.

That the current hit documentary "March of the Penguins" is far more engaging without resorting to animatronics or wisecracks shows that sometimes animals are better left in their natural environment.

Grade: C

Rated G

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