Adventure Movies

A Charming Adventure That Soars As One of Illumination’s Best

December 20, 20236 Mins Read

Migration stars Kumail Nanjiani, Elizabeth Banks, and Danny DeVito.

Illumination Entertainment kicked off 2023 with perhaps the biggest sure thing at the box office this year. The Super Mario Bros. Movie leaned on the familiarity people have with Nintendo’s eternally iconic plumber to tell jokes, set up an entire movie universe, and rack up more than a billion dollars at the box office. To end 2023, Illumination is looking in the opposite direction, with an original animated film based on no previous franchises or IP and hitting theaters during a crowded holiday box office frame. There’s no telling how Migration will do financially, but taking the chance on an original adventure has paid off in a creative sense. Migration is a charming and heartfelt animated film that soars higher than most of Illumination’s previous films, delivering some wonderful laughs along the way.

Migration comes from a creative team you may not expect to see behind an Illumination film; it’s written by Mike White, the School of Rock writer/star and Survivor alum who recently became a household name for creating The White Lotus. The director and co-writer, Benjamin Renner, is best known for his work as one of the directors of Ernest & Celestine. Together, they bring a strange sense of humor and passion for character dynamics to a film in which you may not expect to find such things.

The story follows a family of ducks led by parents Mack (Kumail Nanjiani) and Pam (Elizabeth Banks), who don’t ever plan to venture far from the safety of their woodland pond. Mack is especially worried about the dangers of the outside world and what horrors await his children should they stray too far. After an encounter with another flock migrating to Jamaica, Mack sees how much his family desires a change, so they make the decision to fly south for the winter. With their kooky Uncle Dan (the always hilarious Danny DeVito) in tow, they head out on their journey, but a storm accidentally sends them off their path and the mallard family ends up in New York City. Not only do they have to navigate a world that is completely unlike anything they’ve ever seen, but they need to make it out alive in order to get their trip back on track.

The trailers for Migration don’t really do the film a whole lot of justice. It sets this adventure up as simply “country birds in the big city,” but their stay in New York only makes up about a third of the overall movie. This is much more of a family roadtrip type of situation, where they encounter numerous quirky characters in several different places, while also trying to outrun an angry chef who specializes in duck and wants to kill them for trashing his kitchen. There’s much more to the story than the trailers make it seem.

From the opening scenes, Migration‘s animation sticks out as one of the film’s highlights. The woodlands are gorgeous and the mallards themselves are a massive departure from the Minions and anthropomorphic characters that populate Illumination’s other franchises. The birds are wildly expressive and the performances from Banks, Nanjiani, and DeVito come through the characters in much bigger ways than you expect. Illumination has never struggled to deliver striking visuals, but Migration still feels like an exciting departure on that front.

(Photo: Illumination Entertainment)

Migration is a departure for Illumination in a lot of ways. Outside of the original Despicable Me, there’s a general sense of sameness to the studio’s films. This applies to the animation, the tone, the sense of humor, etc. Migration bucks several of those trends for a refreshing experience at the movies.

This movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any stretch. You’re not going to walk into the theater and emerge 90 minutes later with a new outlook on life or the world around you. It even borrows significantly from a few better films, including Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, but Migration succeeds by borrowing the right notes from those films without ever taking too much. The film’s superpower is knowing exactly what it is and wants to be, and it hits the right beats at exactly the right times.

The White Lotus has spent two seasons on HBO nailing dark comedy and complicated family dynamics. Mike White has harnessed that experience and brought it to the world of animated family fare. It’s obviously not nearly as dark, and the family issues deal with more understandable, kid-friendly takes on anxiety and parenting, but it’s very easy to see the connection between these two worlds (something I never expected to see in a movie about a family of ducks). There is a morbidly hilarious sequence in Migration‘s first act that you could argue has more in common with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre than The Secret Life of Pets, and it sets the tone for exactly the kind of unexpected journey White is hoping to take you on. From that scene to an entire sequence clearly inspired by Chicken Run, Migration quickly proves not much is off the table. It’s a bold story for a studio not usually associated with taking risks.

Amidst some of its darkest, wackiest comedic elements, Migration does find a way to keep it all grounded with a focus on its core family. Mack and Pam are in a constant tug-of-war in their hearts over their anxieties as parents and remembering the people they used to be, who you could argue are responsible for making them good parents in the first place. This is one of those movies that will give parents watching with their kids a lot to enjoy, as well, which in and of itself is a huge step up from a lot of entertainment made for children. 

I feel safe in calling Migration one of Illumination’s best films to date. It’s consistently sweet, surprisingly funny, and its filmmakers are aware of the destination from beginning to end. Just like Migration takes a lot of notes from animated classics that came before it, Illumination’s next ventures would be wise to jot down a few notes from this delightful little duck family.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Migration lands in theaters on December 22nd.

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