Does Illumination’s Migration Deserve to Be Forgotten?

Illumination Migration
Illumination Migration

Not only was The Super Mario Bros. Movie the highest-grossing animated film of 2023, it was also Illumination’s highest-grossing film ever, earning over $1.3 billion at the box office. You would think that after such massive success, Illumination would be especially selective and careful with their follow-up, making sure it’d be another hit in an already lucrative year.

What we got instead was Migration, Illumination’s lowest-grossing film so far.

Granted, Migration isn’t a bomb. It grossed $175.5 million against a budget of $72 million, so it’s at least made twice its budget, however barely. Still, Illumination is also the studio behind animated blockbuster franchises like Despicable Me, Sing, and The Secret Life of Pets. With their titles typically making $600+ million at the box office, did Migration deserve to be their first disappointment?

The marketing didn’t help. It made this film look like just another entry in the crowded “secret lives of animals among humans” genre, filled with movies like The Fox and the Hound, An American Tail, Finding Nemo, and Home on the Range. Even the characters being birds seemed cliché, given titles like Chicken Run, Happy Feet, Rio, and Free Birds.

When the film was released, it only confirmed those perceptions. The story of a family of ducks migrating after living in one pond for so long due to the dad’s overprotectiveness, Migration is about as formulaic as you would expect. While reviews were fairly positive, earning 73% and a 6.3 average rating on Rotten Tomatoes, many noted the familiar story with the Rotten Tomatoes critic consensus even stating the film had a “story that doesn’t quite stand out from the flock.”

Several scenes all too easily remind you of other animated films, particularly the ones previously mentioned, and Migration isn’t half as well-written as many of them. A big reason why is how fast-paced the entire thing is. It feels more fit to be a show than a movie because of how many subplots it tries to fit into its 83-minute runtime, regardless of how well they tie into the overall narrative.

Migration cares more about keeping the screen replete and busy than it does about creating three-dimensional characters and effective emotional beats. In Finding Nemo, you felt the dad’s love and worry about his kid throughout the film. In Migration, you’re told about it through random bits and pieces.

If there’s one thing that Migration has that helps it stand out, though, it’s its animation. 3D-animated movies constantly compete over which one can look the most realistic, which defeats the whole purpose of animation. If you’re aiming for visuals indistinguishable from live-action, why not just make a live-action film?

Migration, however, doesn’t attempt this look, and the film is all the better for it. Director Benjamin Renner previously directed a 2D-animated film called Ernest & Celestine, a film with lush watercolor visuals that creatively used the medium of animation, such as characters literally painting things into the scenery.

Migration doesn’t have that level of playfulness, but Renner’s fingerprints are still all over the final product when it comes to animation. Its world is filled with bright luscious colors, and the skies and landscapes still proudly boast that painterly imagery.

All that only really matters for art fanatics, though, especially older ones. Illumination’s true target audience has always been kids, but for an Illumination property, Migration doesn’t seem to be very marketable. It’s not a critique, necessarily, but nothing about the film feels like it could lend itself to an especially sustainable franchise.

These characters aren’t distinct enough for toys of them to sell like hotcakes. This story doesn’t seem like it could lend itself to any sequels or spin-offs. There’s no hook here for casual viewers — Despicable Me had its minions and Sing had its soundtrack, but Migration has nothing that could stick with casual audience members after one watch. As such, Migration feels destined to be forgotten by anyone other than the niche group of Benjamin Renner fans.

In a way, it was a smart move for Illumination to release this the same year as The Super Mario Bros. Movie, because that was always going to be a hit given how popular Mario is. Migration itself, though, has nothing other than its animation to be worth the trip to the cinemas. At the very least, the film should help Renner spearhead more and bigger projects, and hopefully ones with screenplays worthy of his talents.

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