THE STORY – A family of ducks decides to leave the safety of a New England pond for an adventurous trip to Jamaica. However, their well-laid plans quickly go awry when they get lost and wind up in New York City. The experience soon inspires them to expand their horizons, open themselves up to new friends, and accomplish more than they ever thought possible.
THE CAST – Kumail Nanjiani, Elizabeth Banks, Awkwafina, Keegan-Michael Key, David Mitchell, Carol Kane, Caspar Jennings, Tresi Gazal & Danny DeVito
THE TEAM – Benjamin Renner (Director/Writer) & Mike White (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 92 Minutes
Ever since animation studio Illumination’s debut feature “Despicable Me” in 2010, they’ve curated a clearly defined visual style. The bright pops of color, soft, cartoony environments, and characters with exaggerated, often rounded features are such a distinct trademark for the studio that it’s clear from just a few frames which studio is responsible for each of their films. Even when working with established IP, as in “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” or their Dr. Suess productions, their look and feel remain pretty consistent. That’s not to say it’s terrible; it’s just clearly recognizable. Their latest film, “Migration,” follows a family of ducks previously held back from migrating because of their patriarch’s trepidation as they embark into the unknown. This story of exploring new territory feels as relevant for families as it does for a studio exploring new depths of visual style. “Migration” features much more stylized animation than in previous Illumination films, culminating in a gorgeously animated family film, great for families this holiday season.
After helming the Oscar-nominated “Ernest & Celestine” in 2012, director Benjamin Renner makes his English-language and computer animation debut with “Migration.” Renner shares a writing credit with acclaimed screenwriter Mike White (“The White Lotus” & “School of Rock”), who originated the story, boldly returning to animation after his stint writing “The Emoji Movie.” It starts with a familiar premise: a fearful father figure hesitates to let his family travel into the unknown.
Mack Mallard (Kumail Nanjiani) is happy with how things are for his family. Why would they need to disrupt the status quo? On the other hand, Pam (Elizabeth Banks) is ready to show their family the world. After an encounter between their kids, Dax (Caspar Jennings) and Gwen (Tresi Gazal), and a migrating family of ducks, the young ducks are filled with exciting visions of far-off places and new experiences. The inevitable becomes clear for Mack: it’s time for them to migrate. The family and Mack’s uncle Dan (Danny DeVito) take flight, headed for Jamaica. “Migration” is a classic road movie—the family ventures into the unknown, encountering new groups of characters along various stops. While the film becomes somewhat episodic as they traverse from place to place, the side characters help give the movie a bit more chaotic energy than the family itself brings. Continuing a strangely specific trend of creepy herons in animated films this year, Carol Kane plays Erin, a bird who may harbor ulterior motives in befriending the family. After the Mallards enter the frightening world of New York City, grimy pigeon gang leader Chump (Awkwafina) helps them find their way around. Keegan Michael-Key plays a homesick Jamaican parrot who may be able to get the Mallards to their destination. Each of these characters and more help bring a fresh burst of energy to the screen.
Renner’s previous French films featured highly stylized hand-drawn animation, notable for their captivatingly simple designs that appear as if plucked from a 1970s storybook. Moving from that to Illumination is quite the leap as he’s pushed away from the studio’s house style as much as possible within the studio system. The characters still feature the big-eyed, cartoonish style of other Illumination characters, but the world around them is lush and unique. Rather than cramming each frame with detailed backgrounds, the images are simpler in their details, appearing almost hand-painted rather than made with computer animation. The forest sequences are breathtaking, with gorgeous oranges and yellows. “Migration” strikes the perfect balance between realism, found in the details of the water and feathers, for example, stylization, with stunning backgrounds, and cartoons, as in the characters themselves. This blend is rarely found in mainstream studio animation. Similarly, John Powell brings a special score to the film, full of vocalizations and silly twists that elevate the soundscape of “Migration.” Clearly, Renner brought an auteur’s eye to a well-established studio.
While the characters are fun, and the voice performers, especially Nanjiani, are doing an excellent job, the story isn’t entirely compelling. It’s a mature story about getting out of one’s comfort zone and over-protective parents empowering their kids to be more adventurous than them. The adventure is meaningful in and of itself. When “Migration” veers into unnecessarily silly territory, the power of the story is lost a bit. Rather than relying on the adventure of their migration to drive the characters, a villainous human chef, desperate to cook these ducks, enters the scene. It drags down the story and makes it far more predictable. Flying into the unknown is exciting enough, yet the film doesn’t let that stand alone.
“Migration” might be a bit forgettable thanks to an overly familiar story, but what the movie accomplished in its visual style should be held on to. For families, there’s so much to enjoy here. The humor will hit kids and adults just right, with plenty of big laughs (did I mention the duck yoga cult?), and there’s enough adventure to keep them engaged. While this isn’t a resounding success, it’s a promising new direction for Illumination that families can enjoy for the simple pleasure it is.