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High-flying Migration sticks its family-friendly landing

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Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures


Illumination, the animation studio behind the Despicable Me, Minions, and Sing series of films (and also this year's blockbuster smash The Super Mario Bros. Movie), has hatched its best piece of kid-friendly entertainment yet with the high-flying Migration. As silly as it is warm-hearted, this charming bit of fancy tickled my funny bone and strummed a couple of heartstrings at the same time.

Mallard family patriarch Mack (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) has never flown south for the winter. He and his family — mom Pam (Elizabeth Banks), son Dax (Caspar Jennings), and daughter Gwen (Tresi Gazal) — have remained in their secluded pond and never ventured farther than the trees lining its shores. But when a flock of fellow ducks takes a quick break to float upon their waters, Pam, Dax, and Gwen are inspired to go on a great Jamaican adventure, and Mack is going to have to overcome his fear of the outside world if he's going to lead them there.

Acclaimed filmmaker Mike White (HBO's The White Lotus, Brad's Status), working from an original story he conceived with the film's director Benjamin Renner (Ernest & Celestine), wrote the screenplay, and it shows. There is a delicate nimbleness to the story's construction that's surprising. As ridiculous as some of the gags may be, they are delivered with subtle sincerity, and the character-driven core at the center of the narrative is endearingly strong.

White utilizes several road-trip tropes to make sure things remain on a familiar course throughout, but because the Mallards are such a splendidly developed family, that's nothing more than an airborne speed bump. It's easy to fall in love with every member of the clan, including the cranky Uncle Dan, splendidly voiced by a perfectly cast Danny DeVito. It also allows White to fly off on absurd, goofily loopy tangents that somehow still maintain a level of comical believability that viewers of all ages (but especially the youngest ones) will crow about.

A couple of superb set pieces stand out above the rest. The first involves the Mallards coming into close contact with a pair of elderly herons, one of whom is voiced by screen legend Carol Kane. The whole sequence is eerily amusing, feeling in some ways as if it were inspired by Disney's 1949 classic short The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or the more unsettlingly beguiling moments from Don Bluth's 1982 gem The Secret of NIMH. Spectacularly animated and dynamically overseen by Renner and his co-director Guylo Homsy, this rain-drenched segment is an unexpected wonder.

The other memorable bit involves a utopian duck farm the Mallards — now joined by a Jamaican parrot named Delroy (Keegan-Michael Key) that they saved from the clutches of a power-mad New York chef — land in for a brief break. It's a Six Flags—like amusement park for the fowl-minded, and Dax and Gwen in particular are thrilled to take advantage of its unhealthily gluttonous pleasures.

This brief sojourn into unforeseen danger is coincidentally reminiscent of Aardman's big holiday sequel, Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, currently streaming on Netflix. But where that story entirely revolves around the idea of a poultry farm masquerading as a feather-friendly Shangri-La, White's screenplay just makes a brief pit stop there.

What's shocking is that I found this iteration of the idea to be the far more successful. It's less forced and more emotionally genuine, and Migration does more with the idea in less than 15 minutes than Dawn of the Nugget does in a little over an hour.

Ultimately, I think what I liked most was this film's happy-go-lucky simplicity. White doesn't needlessly complicate things. Most of the jokes land for kids and adults equally. The Mallards are impossible to dislike. The supporting players don't overstay their welcome. The ending stuck its landing and brought a well-deserved smile to my face.

That being the case, I ask you: how could I not enjoy myself? Migration is delightful.