JustincoverGrade:  B-
Entire family:  Yes
2013, 96 min., Color
Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor
Arc Entertainment
Aspect ratio:  Letterboxed 16×9
Featured audio:  English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: D

Samuel Johnson once told an aspiring writer, “Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.”

I thought of old Sam as I watched the animated Justin and the Knights of Valor, which, as I told my wife, had its moments. Unfortunately, that included a moment when a horse started behaving like a dog and it reminded me of Disney’s Tangled, or the main character was blindfolded as he learned how to become a knight and I thought of Luke Skywalker, or the same lad set astride a crocodile with mechanical wings strapped to him gave me How to Train Your Dragon flashbacks, while a swordfight by a giant wheel had a Pirates of the Caribbean look and feel. And so on.

In this new age of computer animation, films like Justin and the Knights of Valor prove that you don’t have to have the resources of a Disney or Pixar to create great graphics with a superior production design and accomplished animation. But those high-quality production values also got me thinking about the difference between films like this one from KANDOR Graphics (Spain) and mega-budget studios.

There’s a whole host of intangibles that keep adults and older children in their seats for a major studio production, while a film like this that’s entertaining, if you give it a chance, may prompt teens and ‘tweens to wander off, one by one, or pull out their hand-held devices. And if you ask them why they’re not watching they’ll shrug, “I don’t know. I just couldn’t get into it.”  
This film looks great, but ultimately it comes down to uniqueness, dialogue, and the little things that move a plot along or make you actively care about the characters or their predicaments, and that takes us back to Johnson’s quote. Lawyers are demonized in this film, and the original part of Justin is the concept that here is a kingdom, presumably in the late Middle Ages, where knights have been outlawed because a lawyer—the hero’s father—convinced the queen that laws, not a chivalric code of honor, should be the guiding force. But that means there are no champions to protect the innocent when the law is enforced to the letter (as when a medieval “cop” confiscates a girl’s cat because of a law).

JustinscreenEnter Justin, who would rather follow in the footsteps of his late grandfather, the greatest of the Knights of Valor (a kind of knight’s Hall of Fame) than become like his father, Reginald, chief counsel to the queen and the one responsible for all these accursed laws.

Now, if knights are banished, it’s not fully explained why there would still be a knight’s training facility, or why a narcissistic knight named Sir Clorex (Antonio Banderas, who “presents” this film) would be strutting about as the only example of the “ancient ways of the Knights of Valor.” But you go with it, and after a slow start the film picks up speed once Justin survives basic training and tries to go after his grandfather’s sword, which is in the possession of the evil knight who killed him.

Parents will appreciate that there’s no graphic violence, that there’s no gross-out humor, and that Justin (Freddie Highmore) and the feisty barmaid who helps him (Saoirse Ronan as Talia) are likable characters. But there’s a real inconsistency in the overall character development. Some remind you of those you’ve seen in Barbie movies (like Julie Walters as Gran or the jester Sota (Rupert Everett), who inexplicably has more to do with the plot than you’d expect.

Some characters are engaging, while others simply aren’t. Lawyer-father Reginald (Alfred Molina) is a dry, nondescript fellow, while the evil knight, Heraclio (Mark Strong) seems drawn more in the manner of old TV cartoons. The most entertaining characters, aside from the two main ones, are a magician with two personalities (David Walliams) who adds energy and interest to every scene he/they are in, and the trainers Blucher and Braulio (James Cosmo and Barry Humphries), who both exude personality. But there aren’t enough characters in this film that have distinct personalities.

If you’re not bothered by derivation, Justin and the Knights of Valor is a good choice for an animated family film. It’s a nicely paced adventure, it has great graphics, and it’s Dove-approved. I’m all for supporting non-major animation studios to help them keep moving forward. KANDOR came close with this one, but there’s a little more work that needs to be done. This one is recommended for families with younger children. Older children might not be as enthralled.