Review: Despite Vibrant Visuals, Animated Duck Tale Migration Isn’t Much to Quack About

From Illumination, the animation studio that brought us the Despicable Me, Minions, and The Secret Life of Pets franchises, comes a slightly more accomplished tale of conquering your feelings and not being afraid of the unknown with Migration. The film follows the flight of a family of New England mallards to warmer climes in Jamaica (with an extended holdover in New York City) after a lifetime of staying put in their familiar pond. Kumail Nanjiani voices the anxious duck dad Mack, with Elizabeth Banks playing his more daring mate Pam. Along with teen son Dax (Caspar Jennings), young daughter Gwen (Tresi Gazal), and slightly grizzled uncle Dan (Danny DeVito), the family takes off on this adventure soon after meeting a flock of other feathered friends on their way south for the winter.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Migration, which is directed by Benjamin Renner (Ernest & Celestine), is that its sole screenplay credit goes to Mike White (The White Lotus), who admittedly has written or contributed to family-friendly projects before, such as School of Rock, The Emoji Movie, Pitch Perfect 3, and even an episode of Thomas & Friends. Still, there’s something so sweet and straightforward about Migration that would never have led me to believe that White had anything to do with it. There are a few amusing dark corners White gets to explore in the story, such as a truly twisted visit the ducks pay to a pair of elderly herons whom they are afraid are going to try and eat them (one is voiced by Carol Kane, putting on her most menacing old lady voice); there’s also a fun meeting with a group of tough-guy pigeons (led by a weirdly deformed dwarf pigeon, voiced by Awkwafina with a thick New York accent); and a homesick Jamaican parrot (Keegan-Michael Key) being kept as a pet by a malicious chef who wants to catch all of these migrating ducks and make them into a meal. Weirdly, there is also a seemingly tranquil duck farm with a yogic leader duck (David Mitchell) keeping everyone calm, until we find out that this film has a lot in common with the recent Chicken Run sequel: the idea that happy birds make for better eating.

As far as Illumination productions, Migration is probably the company’s most visually ambitious and artistically satisfying, which is good because the story is remarkably uninspired, giving the cast little to do aside from sound excited/terrified about this newfound life of adventure. Aside from the few things already mentioned, there’s nothing especially subversive about the material; there are even times I would label the film dull were it not for the colorful visuals. I don’t say this often, but this film might have impressed me more if it were being presented in 3D—it’s certainly shot as if it were meant to be viewed that way. Most of the jokes fall flat, which is shocking considering how gifted Banks and Nanjiani are as comic actors. There’s no denying that the film has its moments, but they aren’t enough to make up for the bland way most of the film comes across.

The film is now showing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.