This film review was originally published online at Science Fiction Weekly, August 19, 2005.

At the height of World War II, the fate of England and her allies rests with the Royal Homing Pigeon Service (RHPS), an elite unit whose fearless fliers carry secret messages from the French Resistance back over the English Channel. Lately, though, a crack squad of German falcons led by the sinster General Von Talon (Curry) have intercepted every pigeon who tries to make the crossing, spiriting prisoners like Mercury (Cleese) back to Normandy to be tortured into betraying their contacts.

Even so, breathless newsreel footage back home in England touts the epic triumphs the RHPS. Valiant (McGregor), a small but scrappy young pigeon, dreams doing his part for the war effort, but no one in his backwater town takes him seriously, least of all his fretting mother. Everything changes, though, when the famous war hero Gutsy (Laurie) drops in at the local pub, recruiting for the RHPS. Inspired to follow his dreams at last, Valiant flies off to join up.

Upon arriving in London, Valiant helps a bumbling con artist named Bugsy (Gervais) escape from a pair of angry hoods. Together, despite their apparent unfitness for the corps, they bluff their way into basic training with the RHPS, though Bugsy only wants to lie low for a while before moving on to his next swindle. They’re assigned with three other bottom-of-the-barrel misfits to Squad F—Squads A through E having already fallen to the falcons—and after all too brief a training period they find themselves aboard a transport plane to France with the ever-resourceful Gutsy.

When anti-aircraft fire knocks the plane out of the sky, though, the five hapless members of Squad F find themselves trapped behind enemy lines without their heroic leader. It’s now up to little Valiant to connect with the Resistance, rescue Mercury, defeat Von Talon, and turn the tide of the war. If the falcons don’t get to him first, that is.

A stellar cast soars, but logic flies the coop

Closing titles inform us that 54 animals received the Dickin Medal for gallantry in World War II, 32 of them pigeons. I want to know more about their real story, because this movie is no fitting tribute to their bravery.

Valiant is a fast-paced piece of computer animation that works well as simple entertainment. Children will no doubt sit spellbound through its 75-minute running time, but adults and even teens looking for the more layered pleasures of fare like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles may find their pigeon dinner less than satisfying.

Valiant does have plenty going for it. The foregrounds are colorful, detailed, and flashy, full of the frenetic action pioneered by animators like Tex Avery. Its story moves along briskly from episode to episode, buoyed by spirited vocal performances from some of Britain’s most accomplished character actors. Ewan McGregor is merely workmanlike as the voice of the stolid Valiant, but John Cleese charms as the garrulous prisoner of war, Jim Broadbent’s drill sergeant brooks no insubordination, and Tim Curry brings both pomposity and real menace to the role of Von Talon. It’s Ricky Gervais who steals the show, though, as the craven con artist Bugsy (even if the role comes across as little but a gloss on his character from the BBC television series The Office).

It’s a shame that the rest of the nest isn’t feathered with the same obvious care. The screenplay dutifully hits all the bases of a comic war story—the underappreciated hero, the misfit recruits, the disastrous mission, the antic climax—but it digs no deeper than that. There’s never a sense that its pigeon protagonists have more at stake at any given moment than just preserving their precious tailfeathers. This feeling is reinforced by static backgrounds that seem curiously uninhabited, as if the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to imagine a world that teemed with any life beyond the major players. For a story set in the darkest days of World War II, the net effect is just too lightweight and, yes, cartoonish.

Still, this all might have worked if Valiant’s pigeons were allowed to behave as pigeons, and its falcons to behave as falcons. Much is made early in the movie of the speed and suddenness with which a falcon stoops from out of the sky to snatch up its prey, a force no pigeon could pray to withstand. This sets the viewer up to expect a triumph of wits over wings, but instead we’re treated to endless sequences of frantic pigeons outracing incompetent raptors. In the end, victory is attributable not to any cleverness but to simple birdbrained luck. It may be shooting ducks in a barrel, but I cry fowl.  

Voiced by Ewan McGregor, Ricky Gervais, Tim Curry, John Cleese, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Williams
Story by George Webster
Screenplay by Jordan Katz, George Webster and George Melrod
Directed by Gary Chapman
Walt Disney Pictures
Rated G
Opens August 19