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‘Valiant’ may be too dry for the kids

Pigeons-during-World War II-flick doesn’t have the visual feats of ‘Shrek’

The animated tale “Valiant” certainly is not a documentary about pigeons, yet it captures the essence of those omnipresent urban scavengers: Mildly annoying, sometimes really aggravating, often so bland you don’t even notice them.

The filmmakers behind this winged action comedy expend a flutter of feathered energy and have assembled a top-notch British voice cast, including Ewan McGregor, John Cleese, Ricky Gervais, John Hurt, Tim Curry, Jim Broadbent and Olivia Williams.

Yet laughs are scarce and little of the activity on-screen resonates. And while the movie already was a solid box-office draw in Britain, the World War II theme of homing pigeons doing their part for the Allied effort may prove dry for U.S. family audiences.

Of course, the idea of “The Great Escape” as performed by clay-animated hens with British voices sounded dicey, but “Chicken Run” went on to become one of the freshest modern animated hits.

“Valiant” is no “Chicken Run,” though.

The movie tells a standard small-fry-turned-hero story as undersized birdie Valiant (McGregor) catches patriotic fever and enlists in the Royal Homing Pigeon Service. He finds support from a peg-legged old war hero (Hurt), but Valiant generally is greeted with scorn as a runt who will never measure up to the vital task of carrying military messages back and forth over the English Channel.

Valiant is teamed with ratty, filthy Bugsy (Gervais), prim Lofty (Pip Torrens), and dopey Toughwood (Brian Lonsdale) and Tailfeather (Dan Roberts) in a ragtag squadron that proves hopeless in boot-camp training overseen by a tough sergeant (Broadbent).

Still, the gang ends up assigned to superhero Wing Commander Gutsy (Hugh Laurie) on a mission to retrieve a vital D-Day communique from the French Resistance.

The birds go through a variety of mundane misadventures before a big aerial showdown with evil German falcon Gen. Von Talon (Curry), who’s been interrogating British pigeon Mercury (Cleese) to discover the hideout of the Resistance.

Back on the homefront, Valiant has a bird on the wire, pretty nurse dove Victoria (Williams), waiting for him to come back from behind enemy lines.

The jokes and gags are delivered with vigor, but very small children aside, few people will find the repetitive lines and pratfalls amusing. The antics often are irritating rather than cute and cuddly.

Computer animation overseen by first-time director Gary Chapman and producer John H. Williams, one of the filmmakers behind the “Shrek” movies, is solid but unremarkable compared to the visual feasts offered by digital-cartoon whizzes at Pixar (“Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles”) and DreamWorks (“Shrek,” “Madagascar”).

A strength in the Pixar and DreamWorks flicks is the expressiveness of the characters’ faces, a quality often lacking in the somewhat nondescript features of the birds of “Valiant.”

Most are distinguishable by species and body type, but like real pigeons, some of the film’s fowl — particularly Cleese’s Mercury and Laurie’s Gutsy — look so alike you only know who’s who when they open their beaks and their distinctive voices spill out.