Animation studios seem to wax and wane in both the tone and quality of their films. An interesting example of this is how DreamWorks started out with a really serious tone with Prince of Egypt and then shifted to irreverent genre benders like Shrek and then really taking off (no pun intended) with the How to Train Your Dragon franchise. They had another lull in the last few years, but with Puss in Boots: The Last Wish they seem to be on the upswing.
The same thing is happening with the relatively new “kid” on the block, Illumination. They started out with populist potty-humor presentations, but with their latest, Migration, they might be moving in the direction of having character-driven stories without the need to rely on cheap jokes.
Migration is a story about a family of mallard ducks who live in an idyllic New England pond. Mack (Kumail Nanjiani) is the father and is the epitome of anxiety, which prevents the rest of the family ever considering migrating south like the rest of their kind. His wife, Pam (Elizabeth Banks), and their kids all want adventure, but the perpetually fearful dad is obsessed with never take the risk of leaving.
This apprehension of leaving safety and taking risks is the guiding theme of the story. Eventually after talking with his single, grumpy, and reclusive older brother (Danny DeVito), he realizes that he doesn’t want that for himself or his family. The rest of the film finds them in scenarios that make them question their prejudices and fears. However, if there is one issue with the film, it’s that they don’t hammer home this concept as well as they could have.
At this point, the story shifts from having the dad being the antagonist to a New York City chef, which could be considered an extension of the theme, but it ends up as not much more than an escape adventure pic.
The script was written by Mike White (The White Lotus) and it definitely seems elevated compared to every other Illumination project. The characters almost all have arcs, and their resolutions are satisfying, although Mack’s arc isn’t as fully baked as it should have been. It also has enough humor to entertain both children and adults, but without drifting into silly territory.
The voice cast is one of the best things about the movie. It was just a brilliant choice to have Nanjiani play an anxious dad and his chemistry with Banks is delightful. Awkwafina is somehow becoming a mainstay for animated features from every studio. She actually does well here as a hardened New York pigeon kingpin.
The animation is beautiful while still retaining that unique style that has been so closely associated with projects by the founder of Illumination, Chris Meledrandri. The scenes that take place out of the city are the most stunning, and unfortunately, we don’t spend as much time there.
The flying scenes are particularly exhilarating, partially because of the animation but mostly because of John Powell’s (How to Train Your Dragon) delightful score. The filmmakers clearly wanted to evoke the same emotions that Powell achieved with his scores for the Dragon films, and it certainly helped.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Migration is a fun family adventure film that most will love, especially if you love previous Illumination projects like Minions. However, it’s still not consistent enough in its storytelling to compete with more mature studios.