Review: ‘Migration’

Heart And Charm Only Carry Illumination's Formulaic Duck Family Comedy So High

Illumination has already had a huge 2023. The Super Mario Bros. Movie, a collaboration with video game giant Nintendo, is behind only Barbie among the highest-grossing films of the year. That’s not a bad place to be. While the lucrative studio has several hit franchises; Despicable Me, Sing, The Secret Life of Pets, and of course, Minions, it’s always tough to launch something new and original in the highly competitive all-ages space. Migration, the story of a family of ducks on a mishap-laden journey to Jamaica for the winter, is slightly different from the Illumination norm both in the approach to animation and the story, which leans less on broad humor and more on family dynamics.

The result is that Migration is less funny than other Illumination films, lacking quite as much of the goofy humor we are so accustomed to. But it’s also something that parents might not groan at having to watch with their kids quite as much. I’ll just say at the screening I attended, kids were having an absolute blast with the fine feathered adventure, boasting big colors and high-flying sights, and adults seemed to like it, as well.

Credit for Migration‘s maturer material has to go to two places: screenwriter Mike White, known for penning the HBO series The White Lotus, and a slew of other adult-leaning films such as The Good Girl and Year of the Dog. But also director Benjamin Renner, the French filmmaker behind 2012’s beautiful Ernest & Celestine, whose experience with hand-drawn animation leads to a brand new style never utilized by Illumination before. This is a slightly more realistic ‘toon visually, fitting for a story that emphasizes natural environments and the changing of seasons.

The story is pretty formulaic and easy to figure out right from the start. The Mallards live a life of quiet comfort and familiarity in their pond. But with that familiarity also comes boredom. The Mallard patriarch, Mack (Kumail Nanjiani) is a helicopter dad perfectly okay with never venturing away from the comforts of home. His wife, Pam (Elizabeth Banks), loves her timid husband but years for more. So do their kids, teenager Dax (Casper Jennings) and duckling Gwen (Tresi Gazal), who get stirred up for adventure when they encounter a migrating flock of birds (with a cute daughter Dax takes a liking to) on their way to Jamaica to wait out the winter cold. When it becomes clear to Mack that his fear of the outside world could cost him his family, and that he might start to turn into his fat, ornery, equally-terrified Uncle Dan (Danny DeVito), he packs up the clan for the road trip of a lifetime. Er, sky trip?

For poor Mack, whose only concern is keeping his kids safe, the world is full of dangers at every turn. The film takes a turn to horror when they encounter a fearsome heron (Carol Kane), not quite as odd as Hayao Miyazaki’s in The Boy and the Heron, but scary nonetheless. Passing through New York City, the family runs afoul (a fowl?) of, what else, a gang of pigeons led by Chump (Awkwafina), who are reluctant to share the sandwich spoils left behind by messy humans. Speaking of which, people are always a threat and that includes a chef who keeps his prized parrot Delroy (Keegan-Michael Key) locked away, and has a fondness for cooking up duck a l’orange. The Mallards would make an exquisite meal, if he can catch them. White also introduces a preachy yogic leader (David Mitchell) at a free-range duck farm built like an amusement park.

Despite the obvious path of its story, Migration does a good job of developing the family’s relationships and finding humor in them, such as Gwen’s reliance on her big bro and teary-eyed manipulation of Uncle Dan, while also expanding their knowledge of the world around them. This is a “bird out of water” story for the most part, with Mack also learning to be brave enough to trust his kids to figure stuff out on their own. In a way, it’s good to know where everything is going because it doesn’t hinder the film’s trajectory. There’s no need to stop so lessons can be explained ad nauseam or in an insulting way. At the same time, Migration doesn’t pack many surprises, either, and so can only fly so far.

Migration opens in theaters on December 22nd.


Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-migrationIllumination has already had a huge 2023. The Super Mario Bros. Movie, a collaboration with video game giant Nintendo, is behind only Barbie among the highest-grossing films of the year. That's not a bad place to be. While the lucrative studio has several hit...