“Migration,” the latest film from Illumination Entertainment, the animation studio that brought you “Minions,” asks the question: “What if we took the archetype of the hero’s journey and completely reinvented it?” (And by “reinvent,” I mean “miss the point of it entirely.”)
One does not simply walk into Mordor (or any other similarly dangerous place). A quest has stakes. It transforms those who undertake it into people they couldn’t have imagined they could become. There are lessons and loss and triumphs and tragedy. If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a quest; you have a road trip. “Migration” takes it one step further; it’s not a road trip, it’s a checklist.
Mack and Pam Mallard (voice of Kumail Nanjiani and Elizabeth Banks) are ducks raising two ducklings, Dax and Gwen (Caspar Jennings and Tresi Gazal), in the little haven of Moosehead Lake. Mack doesn’t like to go anywhere, choosing instead to fill his children’s minds with tales of all the terrible things that might happen to them if they leave the vicinity of the nest. Why? If the creative forces behind the film don’t care, neither should you. When a large flock of migratory ducks lands at Moosehead Lake on its way to Jamaica, Dax becomes enamored with the spirit of adventure and wants to go. For some reason, Mack changes his mind, so off they go, with Uncle Dan (Danny DeVito) in tow. The role he fills in the family (and the story) is unclear, other than to provide a bit of incredibly mild comedy.
The trip takes them to New York City, where they run afowl (sorry) of some pigeons, eventually making nice with the birds’ leader, Chump (Awkwafina). Later, they tangle with a chef who looks like Salt Bae, the internet-celebrity restaurateur, after some horrible accident involving growth hormone. This character doesn’t speak. (What? No one would take the part?) The Mallards meet a captive macaw (Keegan-Michael Key) who agrees to take them to Jamaica if they help him escape. And yet in all this, there’s never a moment when anything feels truly at risk. While we don’t wish active harm on the family — as delicious as duck confit may be — we can’t pull for them because we don’t know who they are, what they want or why they should get it.
Of course, all this comes from the perspective of a grown woman (with some input from a teenager who only attended a press screening for the promise of free ramen afterward). The other children in the audience seemed to enjoy “Migration” well enough, though without the transfixed awe that indicates a really special kids’ flick.
And it’s not all bad: The character animation is solid, and some of the backgrounds have a lush, hand-painted look to them. The first time the family soars above the clouds is lovely, and their arrival in Manhattan is a neon-lit tumble through the city streets, chaotically crammed with action and sight gags.
And, it’s short. That’s nice.
Ultimately, “Migration” is probably going to fade from audiences’ memory faster than whatever lesson they learned in school the week before winter break. The bar for animated films this time of year is low. It’s largely a race for Disney’s leftovers. (Looking at you, “Wish.”) “Migration” will be remembered as neither great nor terrible. It will simply fade into the cinematic ether like so many ducks in the wind.
PG. At area theaters. Contains action, peril and mild rude humor. 92 minutes.