My biggest criticism of Illumination has been that their animated films feel less like movies and more like stitching together of good-but-not-great gags. Migration, however, manages to work as a complete film, as the patchwork formula works better for this film than the studio’s previous efforts. Even better, it’s a good-looking film with some solid character development, shirking the usual shortcomings and easy routes the likes of Despicable Me and Sing have stuck towards.
It’s fitting for such a film that it’s all about venturing out of your comfort zone. Mack (Kumail Nanjiani) is a mallard who has preferred his stay-put lifestyle of never leaving his pond. To ensure his kids, Dax and Gwen, will stay put in the pond, he frightens them with stories of predators and death to keep them contained. It’s a lifestyle that his wife, Pam (Elizabeth Banks) has grown tired of, wanting to use those wings for more than just spinning around in the same pond.
When some migrating birds stop by the pond, exciting ideas of seeing the world dance in the heads of the mallard family. Mack is resistant, but a sobering talk with his lazy and cynical Uncle Dan (Danny DeVito) has convinced him to try something new with Uncle Dan in tow. And trying something new is exactly what this Illumination film does. It features an adventure-style road trip with dazzling sights amid getting lost and flying in the wrong direction. Everything from the sunny skies of rural America to the towering skyscrapers of New York is amazing to witness. They also have colorful characters for each locale to complete the trip.
A road trip film is only as fun as the detours it features, and there’s much to note. Carol Kane plays an eccentric heron with a shack straight out of a horror movie, cleverly staged with the erratic movements of the heron and the dark setting of a rainy swamp. Awkwafina is in her element as a sneering gang-leading pigeon of New York City. Keegan-Michael Key brings an exuberant energy to Jamaican-accented parrot Delroy, and David Mitchell delivers a weirdly fitting performance as the cult duck leader Googoo.
The central antagonist of the adventure is a rich city chef who relentlessly pursues the ducks who mess up his snooty hipster restaurant. It seems baffling that a guy who owns a successful business and his own stylish helicopter would waste his time on two specific ducks (Mack and Pam). That said, he’s comically designed and built for slapstick, made all the more intimidating without a voice actor.
While there’s plenty for the mallard family to do in this, they’re also kept in focus enough so that their arcs don’t become lost in the onslaught of animated asides. Mack’s quest for bravery is enduring considering how he learns to take chances with his family better. Though eager for adventure, Pam also has to place some trust in her husband when things look grim. Dax is given the chance to prove himself when the chips are down (or, more specifically, his wings) and maybe impress another duck he has a crush on. Gwen is…well, Gwen gives hugs, so that’s a low bar for the youngest member to cross.
While there’s nothing all that profound about these arcs, they’re so solidly assembled that it’s surprisingly sweet to see this family come together. The dangers they fall into have weight and stakes, from a paradise trap of a duck farm to the high-altitude showdown with the evil chef who needs to find a different meat to pursue. The family unit also has clever lines of dialogue, especially with the genius choice of Danny DeVito playing the slightly cynical uncle with some clever commentary throughout.
The Great Animated Outdoors
The best quality of the film is the production of the environment. There are a variety of locations, giving off a certain beauty to it all where exaggerated ducks can soar. Considering the goal of this film is the ducks arriving in Jamaica, the payoff is as beautiful as it was boasted in the first act. On that adventure, however, there are a lot of wondrous sights to appreciate, as with a trip through the clouds that leads to a snowball-style play for the mallards.
This film works well with these great environments because there’s room to appreciate the allure. Having seldom left their pond, the mallard family takes in the fresh change of pace and admires the sensations of soaring through cloudy skies and exploring the city’s many birds and foods. Moments of appreciating that wonder make this eye-candy animation less prone to empty calories with a firm foundation of family and exploration.
Migration doesn’t soar to new animated heights, but it knows where to find the best spots worth visiting. It has enough charming locations and fun character moments to make it a worthy animated feature. The road trip subgenre bodes well for Illumination’s method of animated storytelling, and the writing manages to stay grounded in a film where it could easily fly all over the place. While crafting a cute animal cartoon movie like this one seems as though it could write itself, it’s surprising and welcoming that Illumination put the extra effort into what could’ve easily been a routine picture, aiming for the skies rather than the shooting gallery of easy targets.
Migration will be playing in theaters on December 22nd, 2023.
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