Idealistic Justin (Freddie Highmore) escapes from the rigid expectations of his Chief Counsel father (Alfred Molina) into daydreams of their kingdoms history. His grandfather, Sir Roland, was a legendary knight and the tales of his bravery have prompted Justin to pursue a life of adventure and heroism rather than study and legal acumen. On the eve of his departure for law school, inspired by the stirring words of his grandmother (Julie Walters), the spirited redhead sets off on a quest to honour the memory of the great man and become a knight himself.
Bearing, as a treasured favour, the stripy sock his disinterested lady-love tossed in his direction, Justin begins to search for the The Tower of Wisdom. The tower, he has learned, will be his training ground and the key his grandmother pressed upon him should guarantee entry to its hallowed grounds. Finding this mythical place might have proved a challenge were it not for the assistance of Melquiades (David Walliams) – a wizard with personality to spare – and Talia (Saoirse Ronan), a whip-smart, thug-kicking, medieval-fast-food waitress who could do with a distraction from her infuriating life.
Naturally, the quest is beset with peril. It is also somewhat derailed when the monks of the tower prove reluctant to teach Justin at all. Be that as it may, a dark force is rising and there are whispers that Sir Ronald’s former nemesis has returned. A wannabe and his makeshift dragon may be the only hope for a kingdom which has outlawed knights to survive an attack from one of their own.
Justin and the Knights of Valour is a cheerful and attractive animation. The opening sequence – our introduction to this kingdom of lawyers – has fairytale beauty and epic scale, setting a sumptuous tone for the Kandor Graphics feature. Pitched as a European twist on the genre, with Antonio Banderas producing (as well as schmoozing up the screen as the voice of confidence trickster Sir Clorex), the cast is pleasingly heavy on Brits. Highmore is our heroic lead and Mark Strong’s Heraclio the returning rogue, while James Cosmo, Charles Dance and Rupert Everett each have supporting roles. Justin’s story ticks all the boxes for a classic knight’s tale – a young man with a heart of gold and feet of clay, a pantomime villain he will need a miracle to defeat and true love where he least expects it. It is such a pity it isn’t more dynamic.
Like its sweet protagonist, Justn and the Knights of Valour is amiable and undeniably eager to please but too feeble to ever truly wow. Though there are sufficient bright colours and splashes of action to thrill smaller audience members, there are issues with pacing and tone that jar and leave serious fissures in the narrative which grown up viewers may weary of. There is nothing to strongly dislike by virtue of the fact that there is little to feel very strongly about at all.
The premise of a kingdom governed by lawyers is an amusing and relevant one that could have been explored more. In its place we had a series of gags about modern things being used in the ‘olden days’ – mass market knight merchandising, ye olde burger franchises and Walliams tiresome wizard taking calls on his mystical mobile. The Shrek franchise, on the whole, handled these nods to modernity well, while Justin and the Knights of Valour’s attempts are weak and distracting. The characters feel like dilute versions of something or someone else – Talia as Diet Merida, still Brave but far less satisfying and Cosmo’s monk Blucher a Sean Connery-lite. Even Justin is a composite of every cartoon boy who ever became a man, and Banderas seems to struggle to give Sir Clorex a whisker of that Puss in Boots charisma.
In its favour, the film has a lovely warm lead in Highmore, and a simple storyline that children will find easy to follow. The concept of a DIY dragon is a splendid one and the entire training montage is great fun. While perhaps lacking the depth and watch again quality of How to Train Your Dragon or Brave, the 3D effects lend a nice vertiginous quality to a series of entertaining battle sequences, which more than justifies the trip to the movies.