Migration (2023, dir. Benjamin Renner)

by | Feb 4, 2024

Certificate: U

Running Time: 91 mins

UK Distributor: Universal Pictures

UK Release Date: 2 February 2024

WHO’S IN MIGRATION?

Kumail Nanjiani, Elizabeth Banks, Keegan-Michael Key, Awkwafina, Carol Kane, David Mitchell, Isabela Merced, Caspar Jennings, Tresi Gazal, Danny DeVito

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Benjamin Renner (director), Mike White (writer), Christopher Meledandri (producer), John Powell (composer), Christian Gazal (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A family of ducks unexpectedly end up in New York when they try to fly south for the winter…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON MIGRATION?

I’m fairly certain I’ve said in the past that Illumination, the animation studio that unleashed the Minions onto the world, is a far tamer and more inoffensive version of competitors like Pixar and DreamWorks. While the majority of their movies earn plenty of coin at the box office – and in some cases, have even outgrossed films by its better-known rivals – reviews tend to say the same thing about them, which is that despite the kid-friendly content, they lack deeper emotional themes and complex storytelling which audiences, especially children, should be able to absorb. Instead, they just double-down on the silliness in hopes that its target audience will be too busy giggling to notice their lack of depth.

Their latest film, Migration, is not a whole lot different. As with the vast majority of Illumination’s stuff, it’s straightforward, fairly generic stuff which exists as a brief distraction for younger audiences and is thus less likely to age as well as some of the far better animated movies out there. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad, for the film – from director Benajmin Renner, previously of the Oscar-nominated hand-drawn feature Ernest & Celestine – has a fair bit of light-hearted charm to spare, to combat its otherwise formulaic nature.

The film is about a family of mallard ducks living in a secluded pond in the middle of the New England Forest, which patriarch Mack (Kumail Nanjiani) is so fearful of venturing outside of that he actively discourages his wife Pam (Elizabeth Banks) and their offspring Dax (Caspar Jennings) and Gwen (Tresi Gazal) from having many adventurous thoughts. However, after an encounter with a fellow flock that’s flying south to Jamaica for the winter, Mack is finally convinced to swallow his insecurities and take flight with his family – and cantankerous Uncle Dan (Danny DeVito) – to Jamaica as well. And so begins a journey where, inevitably, things don’t go quite as planned, especially when they accidentally end up in New York instead, where they encounter gangs of pigeons, creepy heron couples, and human chefs who see ducks as mere entrées.  

The only thing less original than the plot to Migration is a film critic such as me making a remark about how unoriginal the plot to an Illumination movie is. Nonetheless, this is the kind of family road trip movie that you’ve seen in everything from National Lampoon’s Vacation to even A Goofy Movie, as it hits many of the familiar beats you’d expect in this type of film, such as the unexpected stopovers (most of them toilet-related) or in-family arguments. As you might expect with an Illumination film, the formula is greatly simplified so that younger audiences can follow along, which for them might be enough, especially if they’ve never seen a road trip movie before, though anyone else more familiar with the structure won’t find a lot here that’s particularly fresh.

That being said, there’s still a fair bit to like about Migration, perhaps more so than most of Illumination’s films from the past few years. Much of that is particularly due to the script, credited to Mike White of The White Lotus fame (and who is also providing the script for Illumination’s next feature Despicable Me 4, out later this year), which enlivens the otherwise familiar story with plenty of sweet charm that doesn’t feel too cynical or manufactured. Moreover, White finds time to insert a couple of surprisingly dark bits of comedy into the film; obviously it never becomes too grim in a film like this, but there are explicit mentions of death quite early on for comedic purposes, and later on when the ducks learn that humans tend to eat them, there are a couple of shots of a hulking human chef slamming a giant axe into what is essentially the cooked corpse of another duck. Though the film as a whole isn’t hugely funny, those kinds of moments do get a fair number of chuckles, if anything just for how unexpected they are in an otherwise family-friendly animated film about cute-looking ducks.

Speaking of, White also makes this family of ducks very easy to like, because as simplistic as some of their personalities may be – there’s the overprotective father, the adventurous mother, the bickering siblings, and the cranky old grandparent who tags along – their dynamic is sweet-natured and clearly loving, even when one or more of them aren’t always in the right. The vocal performances really bring out the liveliness of these characters, from the biggest players like Kumail Nanjiani who add pleasant warmth and energy to their line-readings, to supporting players such as Keegan-Michael Key (as a Jamaican-accented scarlet macaw) and Isabela Merced (as a fellow duckling the family encounters early on) who, even with very limited screentime, impressively manage to elicit enough overwhelming feelings of euphoria and excitement to leave a decent impression.

It’s a film that is very easy to like on a scriptural level, but it’s the animation that you’ll be predominantly in awe of. As is often the case in even the weakest Illumination film, the animation is rather beautiful to look at, with Migration in particular absolutely popping with colourful imagery as we soar through the skies over the orange forest landscapes and through the cloudy skyline of New York, all of which is simply stunning. In a way, you can also tell that this film is directed by someone with a history in 2D animation, as is the case with Renner, because the way that some of the characters and backdrops are designed make it feel like they were all hand-drawn before being upgraded to CGI, which gives it a slightly unique look among the studio’s similar-looking filmography. It’s perhaps one of Illumination’s most visually striking features to date, though again that might not be hugely distinctive when the majority of their work boasts incredible animation all across the board.

As generic and predictable as the overall story may be, a decent amount of charm in both its script and its visuals do make Migration a harmless excursion for just about anyone looking for an easy, undemanding distraction that isn’t as cynical as it could have been, especially from a studio with such shameless advertising budgets like Illumination.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Migration is a harmless animated adventure that overcomes its generic and predictable story with an amusing script by Mike White that lends charm to its characters and jokes, and some visually spectacular animation that is simply luscious to look at.

Three out of five stars

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