‘Migration’ Review: Illumination’s First Original in Years Is a Welcome Change of Pace

The animated road comedy, cowritten by Mike White, runs at a breakneck pace

migration
“Migration” (Universal Pictures)

Speed is of the essence in director Benjamin Renner’s “Migration,” a fleet-footed, airborne ramble grounded by Illumination’s unwavering house style. But then, speed is always of the essence throughout the house that Gru built, where all outings promise pop antics at a breakneck pace. On that front, this latest film delivers in spades, only often at the expense of a slightly more gentle and uncluttered register that feels like a breath of fresh air for the studio. True to its title, “Migration” doesn’t linger – though one often wishes it would.

Running a brisk 75 minutes (and preceded by both a Minions-fronted short and title card), this mallard road comedy tracks the well-trodden ground of scrapes and squabbles and action set-pieces; landing midway between the releases of this year’s franchise starter “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and next summer’s brand extender “Despicable Me 4,” this original title also augurs a slight but welcome change of scenery. If far from an auteur picture, “Migration” nevertheless benefits from this pause in IP management, making for a lower-stakes outing with a more recognizable creative signature.

Cartoonist-turned-filmmaker Benjamin Renner (of the Oscar-nominated “Ernest & Celestine”) hatched the story with screenwriter (and “The White Lotus” creator) Mike White, and one can easily spot both creative inputs. With a background in the European funny-pages, Renner designs his critters with vast and expressive eyes – lily-white globes that occupy 1/3 of the characters’ faces, often with rippling brows that rise and fall like animated exclamation points — while the director’s comfort with the more placid rhythms of arthouse animation results in some appealing detours whenever the frenetic narrative stops to feel the breeze.

Meanwhile, White’s creative voice resonates throughout that narrative, which finds a worrywart dad breaking free from the prison of his own anxieties. That worrywart is Mack (Kumail Nanjiani), a green headed duck living with his small clan and expansive neuroses somewhere in the Adirondack range. Mack might be perfectly happy to never leave his homestead pond – a point he hammers home in guise of bedtimes stories meant to instill existential terror – but his wife Pam (Elizabeth Banks) and two critter kids (voiced by Caspar Jennings and Tresi Gazal) feel the pull of the wider world.

How could they not? Not once the fall leaves fill the backgrounds with color, and especially not when a migrating flock makes a pit stop at the family pond en route to warmer climates. Fearing marital strain, and recognizing that his battle is already lost, Mack reluctantly leads his family into the sky, with the lead character’s inner apprehension standing in marked contrast to the outer majesty of animals in flight. Indeed, Renner returns to this visual throughout the film, often following the flock from the ground and into sky as natural vistas whoosh below them.

Hewing a circuitous route from the northeast to Jamaica, and keeping with the built-in rhythms of the family road movie, the rather episodic “Migration” plops the mallard clan in and out of danger, introducing friends and foils (and all of them fowls) like a cantankerous uncle voiced by Danny DeVito, a possibly murderous heron toned by Carole Kane, and a scrappy pigeon kingpin played by Awkafina. The familiar voices pop for a scene or two before fluttering off, capping each dedicated interlude with a chase, or a narrow escape, or a dance number, all to keep the freight train moving.

Still for all the requisite action and derring-do, no sequence soars quite so high as a near-wordless flight through a cloudbank that reimagines the condensation as airborne mounds of snow. The mallards frolic in their winter wonderland before the clouds part to reveal a surprisingly unfamiliar vision of Manhattan, here seen with the aerial axis looking down. Of course, “Migration” is hardly the first animated film to reframe common sights with an appealing change in perspective, only most tend to do so from the ground up.

Of course, aerial reverie might work for a scene or two, but there are wider commercial considerations at play. And so, once our flock touches down in the Big Apple at the around the midway mark, our filmmakers quickly trot the first (and only) human character – a taciturn celebrity chef who resembles Salt Bae mixed with French culinary star Marc Veyrat, and whose flagship dish is Duck à l’Orange. Would it surprise you that this newfound antagonist sets the stage for a typically busy back half?

Without the discounting the often witty dialogue (including one terrific line describing the chef as “a predator that serves you to other, lazier predators”), and factoring in Keegan-Michael Key’s winning turn as the chef’s patois-speaking parrot, the film’s more terrestrial rinse-repeat cycle of chases and escapes has a somewhat perfunctory feel – a fact made all the more apparent by a narrative that views this business as necessary pit-stops, and not much more. All the frenetic action and popping colors unfortunately cannot keep one from asking that most common road-trip question: Are we there yet?

“Migration” opens exclusively in theaters on Dec. 22.

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