If anyone had deigned to label Illumination Studios as the downfall of animation back when they wowed the world with Despicable Me back in 2010, they would rightly be shrugged off as “harsh” and “overreacting.” Yet in the 13 years since, Illumination has continued to lower the bar in humor and animation. Their newest film, Migration, is admittedly not the worst of their recent outings meant to entertain the most brain-dead of America’s children. Yet its Vacation-knockoff sensibilities and disinterested cast certainly never elevate the material beyond the most generic level of passability.
The Mallard family are an ordinary family of ducks. There’s overprotective dad Mack (Kumail Nanjiani), adventurous mom Pam (Elizabeth Banks), confident son Dax (Caspar Jennings), and naive daughter Gwen (Tresi Gazal). Eager to protect his family, Mack refuses to let them leave their beloved New England pond – not even to explore the neighboring woods. However, after meeting a group of migrating ducks on their annual trip to Jamaica, Mack is convinced that the family should take the trek as well to become closer. Joined by their cantankerous uncle Dan (Danny DeVito), the Mallards begin their long journey to the Caribbean, confronting crazed pigeons, bustling cityscapes, and an aggressive celebrity chef whose specialty is duck.
In case that summary can’t tell from that synopsis, Migration is about 30,000 different cooker cutter family comedy plots stuffed together and regurgitated. Primarily, it’s the “overprotective dad learning to trust his kids” combined with “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” There is very little new offered in the material, and you can predict every story beat before they happen – often by a full 40 minutes.
What’s surprising is that if the film had developed these plots, or these relationships, it might have been a better film. There are enough cute or clever moments – a free range duck yoga cult, for example, or the surprisingly sweet relationship between crotchety Uncle Dan and sweet youngest child Gwen. Instead, by the time the unnamed chef shows up in a tactical attack helicopter he’s apparently allowed to use to navigate the New York skyline, you’ll have already written the film off as the knockoff it is.
It’s even more frustrating because, in terms of the animation, director Benjamin Renner occasionally shows flashes of the brilliance that made his 2012 hit Ernest and Celestine a cult classic. Whenever he manages to escape from Illumination’s tyrannical grip, the film comes to life. The flying animation is utterly gorgeous. The tracking shot when the mallards first reach New York and must escape disaster through the streets of the metropolis. And in one of the film’s strangest, and ultimately greatest sequences, the Mallard family finds themselves in the clutches of what can only be described as Texas Chainsaw Herons. Once again, if only the film maintained this energy for 90 minutes.
One of the few solaces to be found with the film’s mundanity is it seems the cast is as genuinely disinterested as the audience will be. Kumail occasionally has some fun with the overprotective dad, yet he still can’t muster any semblance of passion. At least he tries, though – Elizabeth Banks sounds utterly disinterested in the voice booth. Both of the child actors are passable at best, while Awkwafina is utterly miscast as the leader of a group of pigeons.
Meanwhile, Keegan-Michael Key plays a Jamaican bird with not so much a Jamaican accent as it is Sebastian from The Little Mermaid. In fact, there are only two actors who bring any semblance of joy or life to their performances. The first is Carole Kane, who plays one of the aforementioned herons, and is appropriately insane in the role. The second is, unsurprisingly, Danny DeVito, who always makes for a good grump. He’s mostly just playing Frank Reynolds, but why mess with a good thing?
Migration isn’t so much a bad children’s film as it is a lazy one. It certainly had the necessary components for a passable film. There could have been an intriguing story, or witty humor, or actors who cared about the material. But that’s not what Illumination is here for. No, they want to pump out cute characters in cliched tales, knowing that desperate parents will do anything to shut their kids up. Eventually, something’s going to have to give, and either studios will have to try harder, or parents will have to demand it. But until then, we will continue to suffer through films like Migration. I guess it could be worse.
Migration is now playing exclusively in theaters