Half of children’s films and television shows are about conquering fear of some kind. Maybe a character’s parents have trained them to be afraid of the big world around them or another being they consider a predator. Or maybe it’s the standard “anthropomorphic animals can’t trust humans because humans are evil and will kill them” kinda thing. From The Little Mermaid to Finding Nemo and beyond, these films are overly concerned with the fear of the unknown, which often comes from misunderstandings or not even bothering to understand.
Such is life in Mack’s (Kumail Nanjiani) world in Migration. But here’s the thing: He’s one of the parents. Yes, there’s something to be said about his fear and anxiety having kept him alive long enough to have a family, but there’s a certain awesomeness that comes with having an actor like Kumail Nanjiani voice this kind of character. Starting from his days as the ultraphobic assistant on the short-lived TNT series “Franklin & Bash,” Nanjiani is the go-to guy when you want a perfect “fish out of water” character, and he brings his A-game to bear upon his voice performance as a mallard who never wants to leave his home territory.
Of course, as these films go, he must be pushed out of his comfort zone if there’s going to be any hope for plot and character development. Resolution does not exist without a conflict coming first, which involves his son Dax (Caspar Jennings) being attracted to a young bird migrating south to Jamaica with her family. (Jeremy Scott from CinemaSins has a term for it – “the power of ______” – but considering this is a children’s movie, we’ll leave it at that.) Mack’s partner, Pam (Elizabeth Banks), is the more adventurous of the two, and it’s not long before Mack agrees to go on a family trip to Jamaica.
The usual “I’ve learned a lot about myself and others!” lessons play out, but it’s not just Mack; each of them has their own takeaways from this experience, especially Dax, who learns to grow beyond his dad’s shadow. Also, it’s not brought with the heavy-handed, “DING! DING! MESSAGE!” kind of in-your-face-ness films like these usually employ, with writer Mike White instead opting for a more natural flow to this journey. It also helps to have a stellar voice cast speaking White’s words into existence, with director Benjamin Renner reining in excessive “cartoon movie voice” exaggeration and guiding them to more grounded performances that help sell this movie’s story.
The animation supporting everything is, for lack of a better term, awe-inducing. Colorful, vivid, and, at times, near-photorealistic, the world of Migration is a delightful visual smorgasbord full of life and wonder. Jungles, bodies of water, cities, and the countryside alike are treated with enveloping, almost tactile detail, but somehow, it doesn’t overwhelm or distract from the story being told. There’s a magical fluidity and style that nudges us into this adventure without pushing us, if you can dig it. While Migration may not stray far from well-established formulas, its voice cast, likable characters, and stunning animation make this film soar, marking out a place for itself as one of the most enjoyable films of the year.