I'm pretty sure that the point of computer-generated animation is not to make the audience feel as though it's been trapped inside a large plastic box for an hour and a half, but given how often I stumble out of theaters gasping for air lately, it seems that way.
The trouble with technology is that it too often gets in the way of artistry or dispenses with it altogether. This is the big problem with "Valiant," an English-produced CG animated feature about World War II homing pigeons that would have been much better served had it been stylishly drawn cell by cell -- a thought that occurred to me as I passed a framed set of gorgeously expressionistic cells from the original "101 Dalmatians" on my way out of the building on the Disney lot. Instead, "Valiant" looks cheap, garish and less than cutting-edge. Talk about revenge of the nerds.
The story of a runt pigeon named Valiant (voice of Ewan McGregor) who dreams of joining the Royal Homing Pigeon Service, an elite squadron of messenger pigeons assigned to relay messages between the British and the French Resistance, "Valiant" is an unconscionably dreary and amateurish-looking thing, and the rote plot and annoyingly predictable script -- a compendium of bird puns, mostly -- don't work nearly hard enough to make up for the hammy awfulness of the images.
For one thing, the pigeons look not even remotely like pigeons. If I had to guess as to the origin of their species, I'd say they were the product of the unholy union between a handful of British A-listers and a gaggle of turduckens, but I'd rather not speculate. Rendered in hideous, '80s-era pastels and looking oddly oil-slicked, as though fresh from a cruise on the Exxon Valdez, the pigeons exist in a depressing artificial universe in which it's nearly impossible to distinguish interiors from exteriors, day from night. The backgrounds are flat and static, and the camera appears to have been nailed down to prevent it from defecting to Pixar.
Instead of good character and scene design, we're given pointless, hyper-realist close-ups of feathers. Instead of panoramic, well-populated shots of Trafalgar Square, pigeon capital, incidentally, of the world, we get a close-up of a granite pedestal and a single grubby pigeon. (Sure is nubby, though.) For a movie that traffics in bird puns as though they were the last word in kinder humor, a bird's-eye view of the square, the city, is sorely missing.
The story begins when Valiant's town is visited by the heroic Wing Commander Gutsy (Hugh Laurie), who is recruiting badly needed pigeons shortly before the invasion at Normandy in 1944.
With the encouragement of the peg-legged publican Felix (John Hurt), Valiant goes off to London, where he meets a repellent con-pigeon named Bugsy (Ricky Gervais, in full David Brent mode) and signs up.
After a brief training period, the less-than-elite Squad F -- which includes the aristocratic Lofty (Pip Torrens) and the hooligan brothers Toughwood (Brian Lonsdale) and Tailfeather (Dan Roberts) -- is shipped off to France, where a downed pigeon named Mercury (John Cleese) has been taken prisoner by the nefarious German Falcon Von Talon (Tim Curry).
Inspired by true-ish events (the British military did indeed use messenger pigeons during the war and even had a medal specifically for heroic animals), "Valiant" wants to be the "Saving Private Ryan" of animated war movies. Instead (and the characters are just as hard to tell apart) it's their "The Great Raid."
MPAA rating: G
Times guidelines: Contains some scary moments for very young children
Released by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. Directed by Gary Chapman. Produced by John H. Williams. Original story by George Webster. Screenplay by Jordan Katz and George Webster and George Melrod. Music by George Fenton. Editor Jim Stewart. Animation director Richard Purdum. Director of photography John Fenner. Running time: 80 minutes.
In general release.