"What did you think of the movie?"
That's pretty much a verbatim account of a lunchtime conversation with the 31/2-year-old who accompanied this critic to a Saturday-morning preview of "Valiant," Disney's last attempt of the summer to entertain the kids before they're safely warehoused -- er, enrolled -- back in school and day care for the fall.
Whether kids will thank Disney or feel like they've been given some early homework, however, is open to question. "Valiant" is a smart, marvelously drawn account of the bravery of homing pigeons during World War II, when 31 real British birds won the equivalent of the Victoria Cross for outstanding service. Indeed, the movie is so faithful to its historical subject that it resembles an animated version of a walk through London's somber Imperial War Museum; edifying, enlightening, rather humbling, but not what most kids would describe as a lot of wacky end-of-summer fun. At a recent screening, young viewers were rapt, but the only laughs heard in the audience were the quiet chuckles of parents appreciating the film's subtle interstitial humor.
Still, as long as expectations are properly managed, "Valiant" will be a tonic compared with some of the fluffier animated films usually offered to kids. The story -- about a tiny wood pigeon named Valiant (voiced by Ewan McGregor) who enlists in the Royal Homing Pigeon Service and finds himself saving the day by going behind enemy lines -- is engrossing, even though the finer points of espionage, wartime sacrifice and the strategic role of the French Resistance may elude very young viewers. Then there are those "scawy" parts, which usually involve surprisingly intense battle action and some grim bird-on-bird violence, especially when a group of German falcons swoops down on the stout British pigeons with bloodthirsty ferocity.
At one point, a British bird, voiced by John Cleese, is taken prisoner in one of the falcons' pillboxes, which the animators have endowed with deco monumentalism worthy of Albert Speer. "Ve hef vays of making you squawk," says Von Talon (Tim Curry), the preening chief falcon. In a typical example of "Valiant's" knowing humor, Von Talon's secret weapon is to force his victims to listen to yodeling (a form of torture conveniently left out of the Geneva Conventions).
Meanwhile, Valiant, along with a new friend named Bugsy (Ricky Gervais, the brilliant star of BBC's "The Office"), joins up with the RHPS, and the two endure the kind of classic war-movie training that always begins with a commander yelling, "Gentlemen, welcome to the . . . ." Valiant and his -- what else -- ragtag gang of misfits may be the only soldiers who train by flying in and out of the structures at Stonehenge, but train they do, until they're unexpectedly called to France. That's when things become really dodgy: They are shot down, they barely receive a message from French spies, they suffer a falcon attack and they infiltrate Von Talon's lair, finally returning to Britain with the message -- something about the location of a landing being changed to Normandy.
Fans of classic World War II movies will appreciate "Valiant's" old-school aesthetic and storytelling sense, a return to core cinematic values that is made even more classy by a first-rate all-British cast. What's more, first-time director Gary Chapman and his crack team of animators have done a terrific job with the graphics, rendering Valiant and his fellow birds with painterly detail, right down to the blue, green and violet iridescence of their feathers. The artistic team takes similar care with the pigeons' world, bringing to life such beloved landmarks as Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and the white cliffs of Dover. A soundtrack gleaned from 1940s classics and some authentic-looking newsreels (in which cartoon pigeons train and mug just like human soldiers did back in the day) complete a production that for many parents will be a relief from the incessant pop-culture references and Top 40 hits that drive so many of today's animated features.
And, even though its historical references and battle scenes may fly over their heads like so many homing pigeons, kids will enjoy "Valiant," too, if only for its nonstop action and lively visual design. To pick up that lunchtime conversation where we left off, the toddler was asked whether she would want to see "Valiant" again. "Um-hmm," she said, nodding emphatically, just before taking a swig of chocolate milk and turning her attention to the hot dog before her.
Valiant (76 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G.