TRACKING THE World War II exploits of a group of misfit British carrier pigeons trying to get an important message through enemy lines (manned by German falcons) from the French Resistance (here represented by mice wearing berets), the animated feature, "Valiant," is an inoffensive diversion for all small children interested enough in 20th-century military history to know about D-Day. In other words: Huh?

Oh, it's a pleasant enough comic adventure -- for grown-ups, that is, who are already familiar with the backstory. Given the fact, though, that most members of the demographic typically targeted by G-rated films running a scant hour and a quarter do not possess the prerequisite knowledge of Nazis and the Allied struggle, it's an odd mix. On the one hand, "Valiant" is a mite too hard to follow for most of the kiddie crowd who'll want to see it. (Just try explaining to little Timmy that the joke about Gen. Von Talon, voiced by Tim Curry, being a vegetarian is based on the fact that Hitler was one, too.) On the other hand, it's neither especially funny, nor overly exciting for Mom and Dad, who are probably going to be the only people in the room who will fully get its premise.

The film, cleverly enough, opens with a parody of old black-and-white newsreel footage soliciting volunteers for something called the Royal Homing Pigeon Service. (I can just hear it now: "Mommy, what's a homing pigeon?" "What's a newsreel?" "What's black-and-white?") Wanting to do his part for Britannia is little Valiant (Ewan McGregor), a runty if patriotic wood pigeon who signs up, despite his short wing span and his mother's protests. Rounding out Valiant's unit is Bugsy (Ricky Gervais), a fly-ridden con artist who enlists only to escape a couple of his angry victims; Lofty (Pip Torrens), an upper-class birdbrain; meatheads Toughwood and Tailfeather (Brian Lonsdale and Dan Roberts); and the heroic squadron leader, Gutsy (Hugh Laurie).

The plot essentials are fairly simple. Valiant and his mates parachute into occupied France, where they must pick up a message from the Resistance and carry it home to London. The problem is Von Talon and his minions, who have already captured one bird (John Cleese) and extracted information from him about Valiant's mission, and who are just waiting to, well, eat the main characters for lunch. Sorry, kids, but those carcasses ain't chicken bones.

Gosh, will the plucky little pigeon make it? I must admit I wasn't exactly sitting on the edge of my seat, although my 6-year-old son was. (Full disclosure: It's the only way he can avoid falling into the crack at the back.)

Speaking of falling into cracks, I'm afraid that that's exactly what's going to happen to "Valiant." Too dependent on a knowledge of RAF-inspired cinematic derring-do like "633 Squadron" (or at least "Hogan's Heroes") for the average tyke, yet too tepid for their taller counterparts, "Valiant" is ultimately one strange bird.

VALIANT (G, 76 minutes) -- Contains some slapstick violence, avian predation and war themes. Area theaters.


undersized Valiant, far right, voiced by Ewan McGregor, realizes his dream of joining the Royal Homing Pigeon Service and is joined by new recruits Lofty, Tailfeather and Toughwood.