Published: 10:54, February 2, 2024 | Updated: 10:53, February 2, 2024
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Animation for young audiences comes of age
By Amy Mullins

Migration, directed by Benjamin Renner, written by Mike White. Starring Kumail Nanjiani and Elizabeth Banks. USA, 83 minutes, I. Opens Feb 8. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The Lunar New Year holiday is upon us. It’s time for that annual pilgrimage to the movies. The usual Cantonese comedies (Table for Six 2) and thrillers (The Moon Thieves) are on their way, but for anyone with very young children to keep entertained, the choices are slimmer. Fortunately, Benjamin Renner’s Migration, an adventure about a family of ducks venturing beyond its little pond, could have been much, much worse. Produced by French animation studio Illumination — which is why there’s a short Minions film, Mooned, before the main feature — Migration isn’t intensely original, but it is colorful, beautifully drawn in 3D, and a blessed 83 minutes long. It knows what it wants to do, and gets the job done with brutal efficiency. You’ll be out in time for yum cha.

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Somewhere in New England, drake Mack Mallard (Kumail Nanjiani) and his adventurous wife Pam (Elizabeth Banks) are raising their ducklings Dax and Gwen (Caspar Jennings and Tresi Gazal) in an idyllic, if dull, wood. The story starts with Mack telling the children a terrifying story of the big bad world beyond the pond, and how everyone is out to eat them up — which may not be totally untrue. Pam tells Mack off for scaring the kids, and again when he is rude to a friendly passing flock that stops for a rest. When Mack brushes off their invitation to join their migration, Pam has had it. The rest of the family wants to see the world and Mack’s shortsightedness is hurting them all. After listening to a cautionary tale from Uncle Dan (Danny DeVito), Mack has a change of heart. Off they go, heading south for the winter.

Migration, directed by Benjamin Renner, written by Mike White. Starring Kumail Nanjiani and Elizabeth Banks. USA, 83 minutes, I. Opens Feb 8. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

On the visual front, Migration offers all the expected kinetic energy and stunning images expected from a film like this. The Mallards soar above the clouds, eventually stumbling on an urban jungle with breathtaking vistas — a stylized Manhattan. Mike White, who wrote the caustic, white-privilege satire The White Lotus, cleaves closely to the animated-family formula, doling out the requisite messages at the universally agreed-upon 17-minute intervals, but they’re at least padded with creative imagery, if not an overwhelming number of laughs. Chuckles, but no guffaws! 

A horror-tinged segment featuring a sinister heron (Carol Kane) is one of the early highlights — a moment when everyone’s convinced that Mack was right all along — but the rest of the journey passes off smoothly. We know that the Mallards are going to escape the film’s ultimate big bad, an ultra-trendy chef who specializes in duck dishes. 

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It’s in the in-between encounters that Migration makes its more salient, emotional points. An angry city pigeon with a chip on her shoulder, Chump (Awkwafina), is a metaphor for the class and race divides that plague modern life. A colorful Jamaican macaw, Delroy (Keegan-Michael Key), who has been kidnapped, behaves like so many people stuck far away from home, spinning their wheels trying to get back.

Through it all, Renner and White keep the family together while allowing each character a clear dramatic arc that feels inevitable but never condescending. Mack and Pam make a committed, fully adult couple, doing their best for their children even when their philosophies differ. It’s remarkably mature content for a family film carried by quips and jokes, which may be White’s most significant contribution. And it’s a final message parents taking kids to the movies will hear loud and clear.