Review: ‘Migration’ is a breezy comedy with well-meaning messages that sail rather than soar

Illumination has certainly made some colorful entries into the animation canon, namely with the Despicable Me franchise, but it has yet to make anything on par with the best of studios like Pixar, Laika, or Cartoon Saloon. Their most recent effort, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, certainly made money, but it was also a soulless geekshow more interested in appeasing video game fans with hollow nostalgia bait than entertaining kids with a genuine story. Illumination’s newest film, Migration, is thankfully one of the studio’s better outings. It won’t change the world, but there’s just enough here that it’ll prove an enjoyable outing to the pictures.

The story of Migration

From a script by Mike White, the man behind The White Lotus, believe it or not, Migration opens with Mack (Kumail Nanjiani), a mallard duck, telling a story to his kids Dax and Gwen. This story is hyperbolically scary as a way of encouraging the kids not to venture beyond the tranquillity of their New England pond. But curiosity weighs on his young children’s minds, and even his wife Pam (Elizabeth Banks) believes the kids should not be confined to the pond forever. Mack, however, is an anxious duck who sees no reason to venture beyond what they have.

All that changes when the kids spot a flock of ducks migrating to Jamaica. Facing mounting pressure from his bored family, Mack finally relents, and the Mallard family decides to fly to Jamaica, too. This results in an adventure across the skies over various American states, with the family coming across eccentric characters along the way, including a grouchy pigeon Chump (Awkwafina), a homesick macaw (Keegan Michael-Key), and an irate mute chef who thinks the ducks will make for a tasty meal.

Still photo from Migration. Featuring Caspar Jennings and Tresi Gazal. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures/Illumination.
Still photo from MIGRATION. Featuring Caspar Jennings and Tresi Gazal. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures/Illumination.

Renner’s stellar visuals try to sell a theme about stepping outside your comfort zone

With a recap like that, it’s probably quite easy to see how this film’s plot will progress. It’s pretty standard fare about stepping outside your comfort zone, filtered through bright colors and zany comedy that’s on brand for Illumination. Like a bird’s migration pattern, it all heads towards one direction. However, director Benjamin Renner, a French animator previously Oscar-nominated for co-directing 2012’s Ernest and Celestine, captures some stellar visuals in trying to sell this thematic idea.

The sweeping landscapes that are animated as the ducks soar from their forest habitat to murky swamps to the bustling urban sprawl of New York City to the tropical corners of the Caribbean capture an openness that not only feels immersive but wondrous. The size of the world in Migration beyond the Mallards’ pond is vast and full of opportunity. The vibrancy of the animation, twinned with the swift editing and dynamic cinematography, creates the feel of something grand and exciting awaiting this family of curious ducks and one nervous father.

Illumination’s on brand quirks translate to the medium, namely the studio’s habit for fast paced humour and loud overreactions that could perhaps translate to sensory overload for some viewers. Yet the characterization feels relatively fleshed out. Mack’s anxiety does, to a degree, stem from the predators that could hunt and kill his kids, but just as much of it stems from his own selfish need for a safety net, even if it comes at the expense of his family’s inquisitive nature. 

Still photo from Migration. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures/Illumination.
Still photo from MIGRATION. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures/Illumination.

Nanjiani brings idosyncratic charm to Mack

It makes for refreshing new dimensions to the otherwise tired, overprotective parent trope, and Kumail Nanjiani does a great job of imbuing the character with an idiosyncratic charm. His highly strung delivery fits well with the film’s comedic tone, creating a well-meaning protagonist whose flaws feel organic for the story being told. Other voice-acting standouts include Danny DeVito as Mack’s geriatric Uncle Dan. At the same time, the introduction of a mute human antagonist in the form of the chef, seemingly cut from the same cloth as the stubbornly committed human antagonists of the Shaun the Sheep movies, does add a good level of stakes and even makes for some fun slapstick comedy.

Not all of the acting and humor is like this, however. Keegan Michael-Key’s attempt at a Jamaican accent should be criminally outlawed because of how shakily it walks the line between irritating and stereotyping while never being convincing. Meanwhile, the film does sadly tap into a well-worn book of kids’ movie humor, be it toilet gags, loud slapstick, or in-your-face antics as characters struggle to contain themselves amidst the chaos of the plot. Like some of the worst nonsense of the Minions movies, it can feel a bit much, even for a child-targeted comedy.

Migration’s heart is in the right place

Yet what makes Migration a lot more tolerable than the aforementioned Super Mario is that its heart is in the right place. It sells themes of bravery and being adventurous relatively well for a story of this kind, using its medium to humor and entertain while also being supportive underneath the veil of its narrative. That there’s beauty and creativity to be found within the film’s animated visuals demonstrates an earnestness to the film’s craft that’s hard not to appreciate. It probably won’t do much for adults who have seen this kind of story told loads of times before, but its target demographic of children may find themselves wholly on board with the film’s ambitions.

Elizabeth Banks, Kumail Nanjiani, Caspar Jennings, Tresi Gazal and Danny DeVito as the Mallard Family in Migration. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures/Illumination.
Danny DeVito, Tresi Gazal, Caspar Jennings, Kumail Nanjiani, and Elizabeth Banks, as the Mallard Family in MIGRATION. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures/Illumination.

Migration is nothing particularly special. All things considered, it’s a pretty bog-standard animated feat. But there is laughter, and there is charm to be found. What it may lack is the emotional wisdom or impact of something like Toy Story, but it makes up for it with playful visuals and a nice message that encourages its target audience. That’s certainly more than can be said for a lot of other Illumination pictures.

Migration is now streaming.

Migration is now streaming. Learn more at the title’s official website and then check it out however you like to enjoy movies.

Have you watched Migration yet? Do you agree with the review? Are you excited to check out the film or not so much? Connect with us on X @MoviesWeTexted or leave a comment below.

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