Movie Review: A helicopter father flies his duck family south in ‘Migration’

Illumination, maker of “Despicable Me,” “Sing” and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” has built its animation empire by mostly staying close to a child-like outlook. Illumination’s in-house mascots, the Minions, are basically themselves careening toddlers.

But the studio’s latest, “Migration,” carries a faintly more parental perspective. Its central character is a father duck, Mack Mallard (Kumail Nanjiani), whose fears and paranoia have kept his feathered family rooted to a small New England pond. But after much cajoling from his wife (Elizabeth Banks) and two ducklings (Caspar Jennings, Tresi Gazal), Mack and company take flight for their first winter migration south to Jamaica.

“Migration” is vividly animated with warm cartoon tones that would do Daffy proud. But it never quite spreads its wings. Stories of overly cautious moms or dads turned adventurers are not exactly fresh material, even if it is atypical that a helicopter parent like Mack can actually fly.

Written by “White Lotus” creator Mike White, “Migration” — a family road trip movie sans the road — mostly comes off as a gentle suggestion to take that Caribbean vacation you’ve been putting off. White, having mocked lavish trips to Hawaii and Italy on his HBO series, has less satire for the Mallards’ excursion to Jamaica — though the journey to get there is certainly perilous.

Once the family sets off, with Uncle Dan (Danny DeVito) in tow, their stops include a fearful night with a bug-eyed heron (Carol Kane) who makes them a bed in a frying pan; a New York encounter with a flock of pigeons and their tough-talking leader (Awkwafina); a parrot (Keegan-Michael Key) caged by a chef who specializes in duck à l’orange; and a cult-like farm where ducks are being ominously well treated.

These are not, you may be thinking, the most salient dangers that await most winged creatures making their way south. Loss of sanctuary or fluctuating climate are no issues here, though the duck à l’orange chef, who has his own helicopter, proves to be a surprisingly regular threat.

It’s around then that “Migration” begins to feel more like a wild goose chase. That’s not the worst thing for a holiday family movie, though it happens to make “Migration” very comfortably the second-best heron-featuring movie in theaters right now. Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron” is far richer in both its imagination and its menagerie of avian life.

Possibly sensing “Migration” needed a little boost, a “Despicable Me” short is playing along with it: “Mooned,” in which the Minions get a taste of zero gravity.

“Migration” is directed by the French filmmaker Benjamin Renner, who crafted the enchanting 2012 film “Ernest and Celestine” with the delicacy of a cherished children’s book. That touch is harder to discern in “Migration.” (For a truly magical French-made movie on the subject, seek out the 2001 documentary “Winged Migration.”)

But considering migration today is a word so often accompanied by crisis, there’s pleasant enough diversion in Renner’s film. Like Illumination’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” the movie’s most abundant resource is its lush sense of color. Though that’s not enough to turn the tide on the long-running duck season, wabbit season debate, the superb plumage of “Migration” makes for fine bird watching.

“Migration,” a Universal release in theaters Dec. 22, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association for action/peril and mild rude humor. Running time: 92 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

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