In Illumination’s ‘Migration,’ the Family That Flies Together Stays Together

It is never easy to see one’s ducklings spread their wings and fly away, but the feathered family in Illumination’s “Migration” fly high together in this fun kid-friendly adventure. Kumail Nanjiani leads the flock as Mack Mallard, an overprotective duck dad who prefers to stay put in his pond over migrating south for the winter. While the pleas of his wife, Pam (Elizabeth Banks), along with kids Dax (Casper Jennings) and Gwen (Tresi Gazal), mostly fall on deaf ears, he is convinced to fly to Jamaica after facing the prospect of spending his twilight years alone just like his curmudgeonly uncle Dan (Danny DeVito).

The mallards, including Uncle Dan, take flight, starting off with little sense of direction. Dax and Gwen are the most relatable characters, at least for younger viewers, as they are going through the usual tween-teen changes. While the humans watching will (most likely) never have to relieve themself flying in the open air, we can feel for poor Gwen as she is pushed to go to the bathroom mid-flight for the first time. Meanwhile, Dax is dealing with budding romantic feelings for Kim (Isabela Merced), a member of a more adventurous duck family.

But there are very real dangers for the Mallards during their journey, including potential predators. Lost, they stop in New York. The Big Apple can be a scary, daunting place for humans and animals alike, and Uncle Dan finds himself up against an intimidating gang of pigeons. However, the Mallards end up finding an unexpected friend in Chump (Awkwafina in fine form), the leader of the gang. They tell her their predicament, and she leads them to Delroy (Keegan-Michael Key), a parrot from Jamaica who is being held captive (i.e. kept as a pet) by a menacing chef.

“Migration” was directed by Benjamin Renner from a screenplay by Mike White, and they make it clear about midway through the film who the real danger is to the Mallards, other birds, and the natural world as a whole: humans. Although no one on two legs has a line, they are a looming threat. White is the creator of “The White Lotus,” a series aimed at a way more adult audience, but one can find similarities between that show and this film, mainly in the way they both tackle darker themes with humor. For example, there is an exciting, tense sequence in a five-star restaurant, one in which duck l’orange is the speciality. Our heroes narrowly escape, and this kitchen sequence is evocative of the infamous one in the original “The Little Mermaid.” Later, the Mallards end up at a place that is presented as a bird’s paradise, but is revealed to be something way more sinister.

At 90 minutes, “Migration” is a mostly smooth flight. In addition to White’s smart humor, it is also a worthy holiday flick pick for all ages due to its vivid animation, as well as for the talented, mostly comedic cast, including Carol Kane, who pops up a heron who may be a predator disguised as a kindly grandma. There is also an important message here about family being stronger as a unit that will especially resonate this time of year.

Migration” releases Dec. 22 in theaters nationwide.