There have been two animated movies that were set in World War II. And both featured birds. “Chicken Run” premiered in 2000 and was produced by Aardman Animation in the United Kingdom. It was directed by a co-founder (Peter Lord) and Nick Park of “Wallace and Gromit” fame. This film is also stop motion animation. The production included 80 animators who produced one minute of film per each week of work. The film cost about $45 million and made $224 million. “Valiant” was a product of Vanguard Animation which is not exactly at the top of the animation business. It’s director Gary Chapman was debuting. He used a small group of animators and the film took 106 weeks to finish. It cost $35 million and made $61 million.
“Chicken Run” is an homage to WWII prison camp movies and has numerous references to some of the most famous ones. In England, the Tweedy’s own a chicken farm that looks like a German stalag. Chickens who don’t produce eggs are eliminated. A hen named Ginger (Julia Sawalha) is constantly trying to escape and ending up in the "cooler". The evil Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) decides to convert the business to making chicken pot pies. Ginger realizes the chickens must escape before the pie machine is operational. Coincidentally, an American Rhode Island Red named Rocky (Mel Gibson) arrives yelling “freedom!” Ginger figures their mass escape can succeed if Rocky can teach the hens how to fly. Complications ensue.
“Valiant” is set in England in 1944. It is an homage to the Air Ministry Pigeon Service (called the Royal Homing Pigeon Service in the movie). Valiant (Ewan Mc Gregor) is the typical cinematic runt who is gung-ho to serve his country. The villain is a Darth Vaderish German falcon with an eye patch named Gen. Von Talon (Tim Curry). His goal is to locate the pigeon base. Valiant meets a slacker pigeon named Bugsy (Ricky Gervais) and they enlist with a heterogeneous group and undergo a training montage that is supervised by a stereotypically gruff sergeant. Valiant meets a comely nurse named Victoria (Olivia Williams) so we can have some romance. The intrepid pigeons are sent on a mission behind enemy lines to hook up with the French Resistance. This leads to an action-packed encounter with Von Talon and his henchbirds.
“Chicken Run” is an excellent movie. It did amazing box office in spite of the fact that its target audience of kids would not have been familiar with "The Great Escape" or any of the other WWII prison camp movies. For example, the hens are in a barracks prominently numbered 17. It is a great example of how the best animated movies are appealing to both kids and their parents. The ones that walk that line well are special and make huge amounts of money. What’s rarer is an animated movie that appeals to adults who are war movie fans. In particular, it is a must-see for any “Great Escape” fan. The movie should have been called “The Great Eggscape”. (See below for references to TGE found in “Chicken Run”.) If you don’t get the references, just enjoy everything else about the production. The animation is outstanding as you would expect from Nick Parks. The attention to detail is obsessive. The vocal work is top notch and that is in spite of (really due to) a mostly no-name cast. The only stars are Gibson and Richardson. Surprisingly, Gibson is fine. There is suspense and a slam-bang escape using a flying machine that may have brilliantly hearkened to the Colditz Cock (a homemade glider constructed in an attic in the infamous Colditz prison camp in WWII). The sight gags are sterling and the movie is legit funny for all age groups. Most of the hilarity comes from two scrounging rats that remind of the Muppets geezers with their wisecracks. Some of the dialogue is aimed at the eight year old plus forty set. For example, the elderly RAF rooster Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow) says about Rocky: “Pushy Americans, always showing up late for every war. Overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” The music fits the mood perfectly. It was not the highest grossing stop motion animated film up to that time by luck.
This is not much of a contest. “Valiant” is vastly inferior to “Chicken Run” in every way. The animation is below average. The voice work is blah, even though it appears to have a stronger cast. The only standout is John Cleese as a prisoner being tortured by Von Talon. There is no suspense and no character dies (which is not unusual for a kids movie, but “Chicken Run” went there). The movie simplistically aims at six year-olds and misses with most of the humor. It is certainly less adult-oriented than “Chicken Run” with few references to WWII movies. It is very predictable in an average kids’ movie sort of way. It is also predictable that we get pigeon fart jokes.
The only thing I can compliment “Valiant “ for is it attempts to recognize the achievements of the messenger pigeons of WWII. My research found that the use of homing pigeons goes all the way back to Cyrus the Great. Julius Caesar used them to send messages. They did great service in the two world wars. In fact, the main character was named after the last pigeon to bring a message from the besieged defenders of Fort Vaux in Verdun during WWI. Many historically literate Americans are familiar with the bravery of “Cher Ami” delivering a message from the Lost Battalion. Animals played such an important in WWII that the British instituted the Dickin Medal to honor animals for gallantry. From 1943-1949 fifty-four animals earned the award, including thirty-two pigeons. The first three were instrumental in the rescue of a downed air crew. Here is the commendation for one of them (“White Vision”): “Delivered a message that led to the rescue of a ditched air crew in Oct., 1943. She flew 9 hours in bad visibility and heavy weather with strong headwinds.” Keep in mind, before you sneer, that the pigeons were targets for ground fire as enemy soldiers knew they were carrying important communications. They deserved this movie, especially since their only previous recognition in cinema was the damned traitorous bird who flew off towards German lines in “The Longest Day”.
In conclusion, you can let your kids watch “Valiant” and use it as an electronic baby-sitter. No harm will come to them. However, if you show them “Chicken Run”, watch it with them. Just be aware that they will probably wonder why you are laughing at jokes they don’t get.
GRADES: Chicken Run = A
Valiant = D
“Chicken Run” references to “The Great Escape”:
1. The opening theme music.
2. Ginger is put in the “cooler” and puts notches on the wall to mark the days and bounces a tennis ball off the wall.
3. The chicken yard looks like the prison camp.
4. The chickens dig a tunnel which uses trolleys.
5. Some of the chickens sneak out of their barracks after dark to hold a meeting in one of the barracks.
6. The rats stand in for Hendley the scrounger.
7. Rocky is based on Hilts (Steve McQueen) – the cocky American flyboy amongst the Brits
8. Ginger wants to get all of them out at the same time.
9. A bunk collapses because of nails being removed.
10. Rocky travels on a scooter and jumps a fence with it.
11. Fowler smuggles nuts and bolts in his pants’ legs.