It's the "Odyssey" of ducks as a family of mallards try their flippers at heading south for the winter in this warm-hearted adventure from the "Despicable Me" studio.
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In a college creative writing class I once wrote a story about a fiddler crab who goes on a life-changing journey of adventure, tragedy and triumph. He’s separated from his family, gets his claw torn off, regrows it and eventually finds redemption. I basically wanted it to be the Homer’s “Odyssey” of crab stories. But, I was also poking a little churlish fun at big, self-serious stories of this ilk. Hey, if humans can explore the outer boundaries of the hero myth, why not decapods?
I got an A, though the professor wrote in his comments that I was really weird.
“Migration” is another story of an odyssey by non-humans, in this case a family of mallard ducks. The notion is that they’re homebodies afraid of going on risky journeys, but decide to join in on the yearly trip southward. They encounter the expected dangers, but also grow and bond together.
It’s from Illumination, the animation studio behind the “Despicable Me” and “Minions” flicks. This one hits at about that same level: kid-friendly action, a little grossness, but an overall warm-hearted time that all the family can enjoy. My guys, ages 10 and 13, quacked up quite a bit.
(Dad jokes: is there anything they can’t do?)
The movie is helped by some very nice, emotive voice work. Kumail Nanjiani does Mack, the father duck, who’s full of anxiety about the safety of his little flock. (Think Marlin from “Finding Nemo” — screenwriters Mike White and Benjamin Renner certainly did.) Elizabeth Banks voices Pam, the mama duck who’s more centered and practical, but don’t you dare threaten her chicks.
They are Dax (Caspar Jennings), the teenager (or whatever the duck equivalent of that is) who’s eager to spread his wings, often resulting in calamity; and Pam (Tresi Gazal), the youngster who’s adorable, and knows it, and is not shy about exploiting her cuteness to get adults to do her bidding.
Tagging along is Mack’s cranky uncle, Dan (Danny DeVito), who supplies the curmudgeonly comic relief. Mack clearly inherited some of his risk-averse traits from that side of the family.
One of their chief fears is predatory birds, especially herons, which of course is the first thing they encounter upon embarking for Jamaica. Carol Kane provides the voice of Erin, a strange, vaguely witch-like elderly bird who invites the mallards into their abode during a storm. Her husband is even older and more decrepit than she, slumped down into a pile of feathers and a beak. The fun of this encounter is continually keeping us guessing if the herons intend to help the ducks, or have them as extra helpings.
Eventually they make their way to New York City and, as quiet country ducks, are confused and threatened by all the bustle and machinery. They have a disagreement with some Central Park pigeons, led by the diminutive Chump (Awkwafina), the one-footed leader of the kitte, who like the heron presents as a possible friend or foe.
This leads to a potential partnership with Delroy, a parrot voiced by Keegan-Michael Key. Unfortunately, he’s locked in a cage at a fancy restaurant that specializes in Duck à l'Orange which, as Chump helpfully describes, is “you… with l’orange on top.” This results in an ongoing battle with the owner, a gleeful mockery of the celebrity chef concept, a surly hipster with tats, copious jewelry and a long white ponytail.
There is also an encounter with some groovy hippie ducks (David Mitchell voices their leader) who have camped out at a farm where they’re pampered and provided with all sorts of games and diversions. The mallards are tempted to stick around and give up on Jamaica. (This whole sequence is amazingly similar to one in “Chicken Run: Rise of the Nugget” released just last week.)
The movie has a very clean animated look without a lot of abstract stylization. I liked how the various varieties of ducks are rendered in all sorts of colors, shapes and sizes, even within the family where the boys are all green with wide bills and the girl-folks are browner and more owl-like.
“Migration” is zippy and fun, not terribly ambitious but consistently humorous and unobjectionable. Director Benjamin Renner previously helmed the Oscar-nominated “Ernest & Celestine,” and co-director Guylo Homsy came up through the Illumination pipeline via the visual effects department. Their action scenes are crisp and well-staged, and each character gets at least one moment in the spotlight to shine.
The film is being released with the very amusing short “Mooned” at the front, featuring Gru nemesis Vector along with a gaggle of the Minions as he is trapped on the titular space rock with nothing but his gadget suit and a heaping helping of superiority complex.