Migration review | Despicable Me studio’s family flock is a pleasant surprise

migration review
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Illumination’s new animation won’t ruffle many feathers – but its blend of slapstick comedy and very cute ducks proves hard to resist. Here’s our Migration review.

It’s strange that the animation studio behind the second highest-grossing film of 2023, the rainbow-coloured behemoth that is The Super Mario Bros. Movie, is still best known as the firm that brought us the Minions.

Then again, it’s not like Illumination is eager for us to forget. The Secret Life Of Pets (2016) and The Grinch (2018) both arrived in cinemas alongside new shorts from the Minion-verse. Migration, which follows a family of ducks making their way to Jamaica for the winter, is no different, beginning with Mooned – a short sequel to Despicable Me which sees supervillain Vector struggle to make his return to Earth.

It’s light, Wacky Races-style slapstick fun, complete with questionable space-physics and, yes, Minions. It’s a charming enough little addition, even if it’s still slightly jarring to be confronted with the little yellow fellows rather than the distinctly more avian ducks we were promised.

This feels especially odd in hindsight because, by the end of Illumination’s latest feature, I left with the strange sense that Migration might actually be the studio’s best film for some time. Behind a deceptively simple premise, director Benjamin Renner and the team have made a cutesy family comedy with more imagination, smarter jokes, and a bigger heart than it seems anyone expected.

That premise feels, in a lot of ways, like a mashup of every noughties animated film rolled into one. A family of ducks (Kumail Nanjiani, Elizabeth Banks, Caspar Jennings, Tresi Gazal and Danny DeVito), living a life of peaceful idyl on their quiet little pond, have their horizons broadened by the arrival of another flock, stopping off at their home on their way south for the winter. Unable to quench his family’s thirst for adventure, family patriarch Mack reluctantly joins them on the trip of a lifetime – despite the cavalcade of dangers they’ll face along the way. It’s half Finding Nemo, half Madagascar.

But Migration, against all the odds, proves to be worth more than the sum of its parts, helped along by Illumination’s typically handsome animation and some great casting. Nanjiani in particular proves a natural fit as danger-phobic daddy-duck, while Awkwafina and Peep Show’s David Mitchell (as opposed to the author David Mitchell – though this David does, unhelpfully, currently have a book out) round out a winning cast as New York City’s chief pigeon/mob boss and an avian yoga expert, respectively.

If those last two character bios suggest to you that Migration might be slightly more unusual than the trailer suggests, then you’d be half right. Though the film doesn’t exactly have the single cracking idea or distinctive art style that might make it a modern classic of the genre, for the most part it goes through all the beats you’d expect from this sort of film rather well – and throws in a good amount of cine-literate fun while it’s at it.

The film’s villain – a completely deranged, cleaver-wielding chef intent on turning our feathered friends into Duck à l’Orange – is almost entirely silent, pursuing the heroes with delightfully trumped-up menace. Another segment reminded me of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and a third – a swamp encounter with a pair of disturbing herons – is frightening enough that I’m pleasantly surprised it made the edit unscathed.

If Migration’s marketing has had you thinking it’s more of the same family animation, then… you’re still sort of right. But those same ingredients are put to use far better than we honestly had any right to expect. The team behind Despicable Me and a few birds seems – like ‘Duck’ and ‘l’Orange’ – to be a winning combination.

Migration is in UK cinemas 2nd February.

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