BP (Before Pixar) there were kiddy-cute cartoons and adult-smart animations - but rarely in the same film. The melding of the two proved to be quicksilver, and since Buzz and Woody blazed the trail, sophisticated nippers have become increasingly difficult to thrill. Valiant isn't going to give Mr Incredible any sleepless nights, but with a mixture of vivid visuals and inspired vocal casting this likeable British yarn manages, like its hero, to be capable of a few surprises.
Though the headline name here is the perky-voiced Mr McGregor, the real genius lies in the casting of The Office's Ricky Gervais as Valiant's manky wide-boy pigeon mate Bugsy. As a wheeler-dealing flying rat, Gervais supplies the same yellow-bellied, whiney and needy delivery that made David Brent so damn funny to watch, adding a dash of sweetness and some clearly ad-libbed asides to ensure that no-one else stands a chance in the audience-appreciation stakes. He swipes every scene he appears in, and when he isn't on screen we're only passing time waiting for his return - our very own British version of Aladdin's Genie or Shrek's Donkey. That's not to say the rest of the esteemed cast aren't good. Most are predictably excellent, with Tim Curry particularly lusty as arch Nazi falcon Von Talon, the feathered love-child of 'Allo 'Allo's Herr Flick and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Only Olivia Williams gets saddled with a bland, thankless role as a dove nurse, who's sole duty is to flash a bit ofwing at our hero before he flies out - a sort of avian Kate Beckinsale from Pearl Harbor.
Aside from Gervais's show-stealing, there's much to enjoy in the accomplished - if not inspiring - animation. Valiant might not boast the sharp visual wit of Shrek or the visceral texture of Monsters, Inc, but it does sneak in a few sly movie references (Top Gun, Star Wars, The Battle Of Britain) - and the scene where our scrappy heroes flap over a foreboding nighttime English Channel as bombs explode all around is as iconic and pulse-quickening as anything cooked up by the American animation giants.
An amiable family film with a brisk, brat-friendly running time. It won't have you taking flight - but it's no lame duck.