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As some of you may have noticed, there has been a distinctly avian-related theme to the animated feature films that have been hitting theaters this month. First there was “The Boy and the Heron,” the latest film from master animator Hayao Miyazaki that, if it does prove to be his final cinematic effort, serves as the ideal conclusion to one of the most extraordinary filmmaking careers of our time. Then there was “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget,” the sequel to the beloved 2000 Aardman favorite that has some amusing moments here and there, but which unfortunately cannot help but suffer in comparison to its practically perfect predecessor. Now comes “Migration,” the latest effort from Illumination Studios, the folks behind the “Despicable Me”/“Minions” franchises and this year’s smash hit “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.”
"Migration," sadly, is so bereft of any real point of interest for any viewer over the age of 8, that it almost makes “Dawn of the Nugget” look like Miyazaki's latest film by comparison. How bereft, you may wonder? So bereft that I plan to avoid using any bird-related comments that I suspect will accompany other reviews on the basis that even those critiques, as hackneyed as they may be, demonstrate greater flashes of wit and ingenuity than anything on display here.
The focus of the film are the Mallards, a family of ducks consisting of overly cautious dad Mack (Kumail Nanjiani), adventurous mom Pam (Elizabeth Banks), teen son Dax (Caspar Jennings), adorable duckling daughter Gwen (Tresi Gazal) and grumpy Uncle Dan (Danny DeVito). They have never left the confines of their New England pond, largely due to Mack’s fears of what could happen to them in the outside world. However, when another family of ducks, including one (Isabela Merced) that Dax immediately crushes on, lands in their pond for a brief stop on their annual migratory journey to Jamaica, the rest of the family cajoles the initially hesitant Mack to break out of their collective rut and make the trip to the Caribbean themselves.
Presumably because they are out of practice, the Mallards inevitably head the wrong way and soon find themselves lost in the middle of New York City, where they encounter a gang of pigeons led by the irascible Chump (Awkwafina). As it happens, Chump knows a Jamaican parrot named Delroy (Keegan-Michael Key) who can help them find their way down South. Delroy, however, is currently caged up inside a trendy Manhattan restaurant as the pet of the owner/head chef. The Mallards manage to set Delroy free and try to make their way to Jamaica. Along the way, they go through the expected amount of wacky hijinks and exceedingly mild conflicts as they're relentlessly chased by the malevolent Martin Yan-wannabe chef, whose place must be doing well since he is apparently able to afford his own private helicopter to help in his pursuit.
And that is pretty much it—a story so slender that it feels more like a TV special, the kind cranked out by a popular franchise to keep up audience interest in between the actual feature films. That in itself isn’t startling, but what is surprising is that a film as utterly innocuous as this was written by Mike White—yes, the same one responsible for the likes of “School of Rock,” “Year of the Dog” and “The White Lotus” (and yeah, he was also the co-writer of the admittedly worse “The Emoji Movie”). It's even more shocking to see Benjamin Renner attached as co-director; his previous films have included such sly, charming and visually striking animated features as “Ernest & Celestine” and “The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales.”
You would think that a film combining their talents would have at least a few interesting quirks to speak of but their efforts, for lack of a better term, have resulted in a film so blandly formulaic (even the visuals are forgettable, aside from a couple of decent compositions making use of the 2:35 aspect ratio) that it almost makes “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” seem practically avant-garde by comparison.
The closest “Migration” comes to anything interesting is in the way it inadvertently touches upon material similar to that found in those other current bird-based animated films. At one point, the Mallards have a strange encounter with a potentially dangerous heron (voiced by Carol Kane) and while this scene doesn’t necessarily follow along the lines of the Miyazaki film, it does seem like a strange coincidence. Later on, however, is a big set piece in which the Mallards happen upon a bucolic duck farm that almost seems to be too good to be true; it does, in fact, harbor a dark secret. It's a sequence that is almost a carbon copy of the main plot of “Dawn of the Nugget,” right down to certain details of the place that we see. As the three films were obviously made more or less at the same time, this is clearly a case of great minds thinking alike, though, it is too bad that those great minds were apparently too busy with their other projects to lend a hand here.
Little kids might be reasonably distracted by this during its relatively brief running time—it is bright and colorful, there is plenty of slapstick and the story is easy enough for them to follow without much difficulty. But kids deserve a little more from their entertainment than just that. The young ones that this film is being aimed at are of the age when the movies can genuinely be magical, and the best ones can form memories that will last a lifetime. “Migration” may pass the time, but my guess is that those kids will retain more lasting memories of whatever their parents got for them at the concession stand than anything up there on the screen.
In theaters now.
Kumail Nanjiani as Mack Mallard (voice)
Elizabeth Banks as Pam Mallard (voice)
Caspar Jennings as Dax Mallard (voice)
Tresi Gazal as Gwen Mallard (voice)
Awkwafina as Chump (voice)
Carol Kane as Erin (voice)
Keegan Michael Key as Delroy (voice)
Danny DeVito as Uncle Dan (voice)