There are many things to like about Justin and the Knights of Valour. The animation, while not groundbreaking, paints an imaginative world filled with vivid detail. Justin (Freddie Highmore), its star, is also a genial, idealistic youth. He’s kind and principled, which may explain why his father (Alfred Molina) thinks he should follow in his footsteps and study law. And though it’s not always a respected profession, it’s a secure one in the land of Gabylonia, where legalism rules the day. The kingdom is a place where statutes have worked their way into every detail of daily life. Anyone can be ticketed for shouting too loudly in the streets and strongmen will snatch cats from little girls who haven’t updated their kitty’s vaccination cards.
It’s easy to see why Justin would want to trade a bureaucratic future for a life of adventure, and he dreams of being a knight like his grandfather, the brave and of course valorous Sir Roland. But two things stand in his way – his father and the law. And his scrawny physique. Since the king’s death years ago, the grieving queen (Olivia Williams) has banished knights, whom she blames for her husband’s death. Justin remains undaunted, however, and sets off on a quest, with some nudging from his grandmother (Julie Walters), to reclaim his grandfather’s missing sword and to find courage within himself.
I should stop here before trying to further untangle the various plot and character threads because, despite a strong opening, the movie overreaches and Justin’s coming of age gets lost in a confusion of sub-plots and minor characters, all seemingly to make room for the film’s expansive, all-star voice cast. There are a few key figures who aid in Justin’s self-discovery. He meets Blucher (James Cosmo), a monk and former knight who was also Sir Roland’s best friend. A colorful and scrappy old guy, Blucher puts Justin through the ringer and dispenses sage advice. Talia (Saoirse Ronan), a fiery barmaid, eventually turns sidekick while Lara (Tamsin Egerton), a selfish rich girl, is the lady to whom Justin dedicates his quest. Looming in the background is Heraclio (Mark Strong), a fallen knight who wants to reclaim his place in Gabylonia.
This film is hardly this straightforward though. A full slate of sideshow distractions leaves you wondering about the movie’s focus, which seems to be concentrated more on star power than on story. Antonio Banderas voices Sir Clorex, a vain handyman who passes himself off as a knight, David Walliams portrays a soothsayer/wizard/nut who hangs out at Talia’s bar and dispenses fortunes and gobbledygook in equal measure, Rupert Everett plays a fashionable jester and/or knight in Heraclio’s service, and Charles Dance is the head monk whose purpose I don’t remember.
The characters certainly add some laughs, and kids might enjoy their distinctiveness, but none are particularly important to the story. Justin’s journey is not just about following his heart but also about his relationship with his father, who in turn remains very affected by the actions of his father. There is potential for some Pixar-level pulling of the heartstrings, but the film never capitalizes on these moments, making Justin and the Knights of Valour a not altogether successful quest.
“Heroes” by Rebecca Ferguson:
Prod: Antonio Banderas, Marcelino Almansa, Kerry Fulton, Ralph Kamp
Dir: Manuel Sicilia
Writer: Matthew Jacobs, Manuel Sicilia
Cast: Freddie Highmore, James Cosmo, Mark Strong, Alfred Molina, Julie Walters, Saoirse Ronan, Tamsin Egerton, Antonio Banderas, David Walliams, Barry Humphries, Charles Dance, Rupert Everett, Olivia Williams
Time: 90 min