Movie review: Mike White’s touch helps make ‘Migration’ worthwhile journey

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You can learn a lot about yourself — and those closest to you — on vacation. That’s the animus behind the blockbuster HBO series “The White Lotus,” and it’s also the major theme of the new family animated film “Migration.” An odd comparison, perhaps, but it all makes perfect sense when you consider both projects happen to be written by Mike White. He’s taken this notion about the transformative power of travel from his award-winning prestige TV series and transplanted it to a kid-friendly animated film about a family of ducks who finally decide to take an annual migration away from their cozy pond to see what they can see.

Kumail Nanjiani voices Mack, the anxious and overprotective patriarch of the Mallard family, content to let his family stay put in the safety of their pond, far away from sharp heron beaks. He emphasizes his paranoid worldview with terrifying bedtime stories for his kids, Dax (Caspar Jennings) and Gwen (Tresi Gazal), but when a family of seabirds traveling south to Jamaica for the winter alights in their pond for a layover, Dax develops a crush on Kim (Isabela Merced) and becomes fixated on taking a migration. Terrified of turning into his decrepit Uncle Dan (Danny DeVito), and wanting to impress his wife Pam (Elizabeth Banks), Mack decides to take off with his family for parts south, despite his inhibitions. What could go wrong? Oh, everything. But what could go right? So, so much more.

“Migration” is swift and appealing, a high-flying jaunt that doesn’t need to break the mold on these kinds of family adventure movies. The character design is familiar, but the flying scenes are remarkably conceived and executed; it’s colorful, comforting and crisply rendered. But it is also laced through with a swirl of cultural commentary that reveals White’s worldview.

There’s of course the lessons to be learned through travel and adventure, especially about your partner. Mack realizes that Pam is tougher and savvier than he gave her credit for, and Pam is charmed to see Mack step up and demonstrate his bravery as the leader of their family as they get themselves into many, many perilous situations. That mirrors the themes of the resort-set “The White Lotus,” as well as White’s own stint as a cast member on the reality show “Survivor.”

You can see White’s ethical influence as well in the main antagonist, an uber-cool tattooed bad boy chef, known for his duck a l’orange, and whom the Mallard family has to keep escaping again and again. A city pigeon named Chump (Awkwafina) explains that the chef is a predator who cooks and feeds ducks to other, lazier predators — diners. It’s a funny line that may make you sit up straight and wonder if this movie might put kids off poultry, so it’s not a surprise to discover that White is a vegan for ethical, animal-loving reasons.

His questioning of animal farming practices extends to another pit stop that the Mallard family makes after liberating the chef’s pet parrot Delroy (Keegan-Michael Key), at a cultish duck utopia, where the birds are being fattened for slaughter. Led by a guru named GooGoo (David Mitchell), it feels like a spa out of a Mike White series such as “Enlightened” or “Lotus.” But even the kindly farmers here are handing over their birds for cash to the chef, and the Mallards can’t escape this knife-wielding maniac on their tail feathers. In a harried climax, they have to fight off the chef once and for all before they can make their way to their final destination.

It’s these kinds of details in storytelling that reveal “Migration” to be an auteur project for White, who wrote the screenplay and dreamed up the story with director Benjamin Renner. It is a family-friendly, seasonal, nondenominational holiday movie option, but it’s more fun to pick out what makes this a Mike White project, and his influence gives it a slight edge over the rest, making “Migration” a worthwhile journey.


2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG (for action/peril and mild rude humor)

Running time: 1:32

How to watch: In theaters Friday

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