A Solid Fantasy Romp From a Smaller Studio
Antonio Bandderas has an interesting relationship with computer generated animated feature films. Not only is he known for playing the attitude-heavy Puss of both DreamWorks’ Shrek and Puss in Boots fame, he’s also a producer for Spain’s Kandor Graphics. The name may not mean much to you but to date they have had two domestic CG releases: 2008’s The Missing Lynx and 2013’s Justin and the Knights of Valor.
The latter was released theatrically in September 2013 in Spain and the United Kingdom followed by a US release on DVD and Blu-ray by ARC Entertainment in 2014.
The story follows the exploits of Justin (Freddie Highmore) in the kingdom of Gabylonia, where lawyers control the populace and knights have been ousted. His dream is to become one of the Knights of Valor, like his grandfather, Sir Roland. But his father Reginald (Alfred Molina), a widower and the chief counsel to the Queen (Olivia Williams), wants his son to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer. After an argument with his father, Justin seeks comfort from his grandmother (Julie Walters), a friend of the Queen, who encourages him to follow his dreams.
Justin embarks on a quest to become a knight. Along the way he meets a feisty girl named Talia (Saoirse Ronan), a barmaid at the Broken Eagle Inn, and a split-personality wizard called Melquiades (David Walliams). Meanwhile, Justin’s grandmother visits the Queen, who tells her that she regrets her decision of ousting the knights.
An armor polisher and small-time thief overhears their conversation and steals some armor to disguise himself as a knight, naming himself Sir Clorex (Antonio Banderas). About this time Justin begins his training with a trio of monks/ former knights: Braulio (Barry Humphries), an inventor who suffers from nervous attacks when shocked or stressed, Legantir (Charles Dance), a wizard and head monk of the abbey and Blucher (James Cosmo), a knight and an old friend of Sir Roland.
This training would have to be accelerated though as the banished former knight, Sir Heraclio (Mark Strong) and his accomplice Sota (Rupert Everett), have returned from exile and have started gathering an army (composed of people broken out of prison by Sota’s brothers) to seek revenge on the Queen for outlawing knights.
If this all sounds a bit complex, it really isn’t. There are more characters than what is generally considered standard in domestic CG animated features of late but the story is never presented in such a way where (even younger) viewers will lose track of the plot progression.
Most of the pacing here follows the very tried-and-true destination method: tasks are presented a single destination at a time while the larger narrative unfolds. Ultimately the climactic battle between Justin and Sir Heraclio is predictable, but nevertheless exciting and well presented. Best of all, because Justin has to train to achieve his knighthood, the underlying theme of the film is one of never giving up rather than magical shortcuts or simple diversions.
Of course, while the film is very family friendly and never offensive, it also fails really to take chances or introduce anything new to the fold. There are moments that harken to what DreamWorks has accomplished in How to Train Your Dragon or Pixar did with Brave but by and large, there isn’t much in the way of cleverness or originality here.
Instead, what we do get it is a decent looking, well acted 96-minutes of fantasy romp. Younger audiences will likely be even more forgiving about the lack of originality but adults, especially those of us spoiled by some of the biggest names in the industry, will likely long for something just a little more special. At the very least, a bit more comic relief would certainly be welcome.