The animation hit factory behind Sing 2, The Super Mario Bros Movie, and that ever-present Minions franchise hopes families will flock to its latest flick, Migration, out in theaters this week. But should they?
What's good about Migration
This colorful and fun film is a wonderfully positive depiction of a nuclear family, as the Mallard couple love each other and the two duck siblings’ push-pull rivalry is sweet and sincere. It sidesteps the usual toilet humor and snarky attitudes prevalent in current kids’ entertainment. And its one sequence of fowl peril may frighten only the youngest viewers.
The only problem with this beautifully animated film? Migration is billed as a comedy, but it’s poorly paced, and the gags rarely land.
A few sequences work, as they aim for the slapstick of Chicken Run and cultural flair of Lin Manuel Miranda’s recent Netflix musical Vivo.
But the characters, relationships, and conflict are not well-defined upfront, so there’s little emotional investment in this family’s vacation flight South for the winter.
Fun yet forgettable family antics
Mallard dad Mack (Kumail Nanjiani) is quite content living in his family’s New England pond, even if winters are bone-chilling. But his plucky mate Pam (Elizabeth Banks) thinks they need to see the world, especially after reveling in tales from a flock of birds heading to the Caribbean.
Their kids, teen Dax and young daughter, Gwen –- whose sibling banter is a genuinely funny highlight of Migration and reminded me of my two kids -– sure want adventure. The two even convince Uncle Dan (Danny DeVito) to leave his relative comfort.
The feathered family heads off roughly towards Jamaica, by way of the rural Northeast, bustling New York City, and the Florida coast. Unfortunately, their misadventures seem episodic and disconnected, to the point that it feels like five TV episodes strung together.
Their journey’s first predicament has probably its scariest moments, as an elderly heron takes them In out of the cold. Cue the evil old folks trope, as the ducks must sleep in a cast-iron pan. The fear of being eaten is standard fare for kids’ movies, but somehow the Looney Tunes-style dark humor just doesn’t work here.
Other moments of peril show up on a chicken farm (a sequence aping Chicken Run) and an elite NYC restaurant (yes, you’ve seen it done in Ratatouille). By the third act, the restaurant’s chef is transformed into a super-villain with an armada of oversized vehicles.
It underlines how the forgettable plot most resembles Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon shows.
It’s clean, just not compelling
Considering Illumination is usually crowd-pleasing to a fault –- and screenwriter Mike White of School of Rock can surely write comedy –- the many misfires of Migration are baffling.
Filmmakers clearly wanted this to be Illumination’s answer to recent classics like Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Disney’s Bolt, which are sweeping journeys across diverse landscapes that bring the protagonists closer together.
Migration ends up more like a cross between The Good Dinosaur and Spies in Disguise: driven by impressive natural-world visuals (like the former) and some cool action scenes involving helicopters (the latter). The thematic ideas from such films –- believe in yourself and something vague about family -– lack depth and any impact on viewers.
For the past 25 years, the dozen or so animated films with flying lead figures haven’t had a breakout hit. But several others in this subgenre –- underrated babies-centric Storks (EDITOR'S NOTE: We're going to agree to disagree on Storks) broadly comic Penguins of Madagascar, and especially the always-funny Chicken Run –- leave more of a lasting impression.
Should families see Migration?
While underwhelming in its storytelling, Migration is a nice enough flick to keep some kindergarteners and younger grade-schoolers occupied for 90 minutes, following a well-worn path of several other better family movies.
Rated PG for action/peril and mild rude humor, Migration opens in U.S. theaters on Dec. 22.
Image: Universal Pictures
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.