“At Illumination, we’re fortunate to be the stewards of a number of franchises, but we also believe that we have a mission to bring new stories and new characters to the world,” says Illumination founder and CEO Chris Meledandri. With Migration, the studio embarks on a new adventure that explores universal themes of family, curiosity and the rewards of stepping outside your comfort zone.
Illumination, founded by Meledandri in 2007, is the entertainment industry’s leading producer of event-animated films, including The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the first film of 2023 to earn more than $1 billion worldwide, Despicable Me—the most successful animated franchise in cinematic history—as well as Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch and The Secret Life of Pets and Sing films. Illumination’s revered studio library includes three of the top 10 animated films of all time.
“The making of Migration has been a great adventure. Each time we create a new story, we start in different places. From the time I was a child, I’ve always found ducks incredibly appealing because they’re so silly and likable. But what really gives this movie its universality is that the film is touching on issues that are very human, relevant issues.”
At the core of Migration is a narrative that taps into the comedic, wise, irritating and affectionate elements of universal family dynamics, shaped by a screenplay from the razor-witted mind of Emmy winner Mike White, creator of the HBO series sensation The White Lotus and the writer of the 2003 comedy blockbuster School of Rock. White created the story for Migration with the film’s acclaimed French director, Benjamin Renner. Renner’s work, including his 2014 Oscar nominated film Ernest & Celestine, highlight his deep talent for compelling stories and characters.
“When I first saw Benjamin’s work, particularly his direction of Ernest & Celestine, I felt an immediate connection to his vision,” Meledandri says. “He finds unique ways to express moments in a film that are touching, funny and clever. His work is visually quite stunning, and perhaps most importantly, his characters have this innate sweetness to them. And he happens to share our love of ducks.”
Migration is Renner’s first feature for a major U.S. studio, and he approached his first meeting with Meledandri with a mixture of excitement and nerves. “Meeting Chris, I had a feeling that I had to put on an act, pretending to be the confident director Hollywood expects,” Renner says. “But to my surprise, Chris immediately connected with me on a deeper level. We started discussing emotions and shared experiences, and I felt a profound sense of confidence in that moment. Working with Chris became an exciting prospect, as we shared a common vision and the desire to have fun while making this film. What attracted me to the project was that we were talking about real things. In those first conversations, Chris focused on the ideas behind the film—relationships, taking care of loved ones and the challenges of two people wanting different things. I was excited to delve into these aspects of life and, when I read the script, those ideas were reflected beautifully in it.”
The heart of Migration explores a universal theme of fear and anxiety about the unknown, and how that fear can prevent us, and the people we love, from becoming our bravest, best and most authentic selves. “Through the story, we wanted to strike a balance, avoiding being overly serious while still conveying the importance of seizing life’s opportunities,” Meledandri says. “Benjamin’s unique sensibility as a storyteller enabled us to navigate these themes with depth and specificity, forging a profound connection between the audience and the characters.”
The Mallard family is in a bit of rut. While dad Mack is content to keep his family safe paddling around their New England pond forever, mom Pam is eager to shake things up and show their kids—teen son Dax and duckling daughter Gwen—the whole wide world. After a migrating duck family alights on their pond with thrilling tales of far-flung places, Pam persuades Mack to embark on a family trip, via New York City, to tropical Jamaica. As the Mallards make their way South for the winter, their well-laid plans quickly go awry. The experience will inspire them to expand their horizons, open themselves up to new friends and accomplish more than they ever thought possible, while teaching them more about each other—and themselves—than they ever imagined.
Mallard dad Mack, played by Kumail Nanjiani, worries about the dangers and unpredictability of the outside world, while mom Pam, played by Elizabeth Banks, wants their family, particularly their children, to experience the wonders of the whole world, not just their small, protected one. “As we progressed, we understood the emotions that we wanted to share, and that became the base of the movie,” Renner says. “I did what I know how to do—inject humor and relatable moments into my work. This movie strives to establish a strong connection with audiences by expressing the reward of embracing these new experiences and the wonderful moments and relationships that can emerge along the way. In exploring the theme of coming out of one’s comfort zone, it reminded me of my own love for hiking and traveling. I’ve had experiences where I didn’t want to go, but someone encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone, and every time I did, I had a magnificent and great experience. I wanted to share that feeling with the audience, that sense of reward when you have an adventure.”
The journey of getting Migration to the screen expanded Renner’s own professional adventure as he adjusted to the differences of working in 3D animation rather than in the 2D styles that he had been accustomed to. “Coming from smaller French movies, where I knew everyone, I enjoyed getting to know people and sharing with them, and there were so many talented people on the team,” Renner says. “I had to learn to let go and trust their skills. When working with 3D animation, the process goes from stiff layout to animation and then to the final rendering, where the studio works its magic. It’s been amazing to see the transformation and the attention to detail. I’m grateful to the team for their outstanding work in every department. I keep discovering new things in the movie each time I see it.”
Renner was surrounded by a seasoned Illumination team, including co-director Guylo Homsy, who has worked on the layout teams for several Illumination films, including the Despicable Me and Sing franchises. “When I found out Guylo would be my co-director, I was excited because I had seen his work on the Sing movies,” Renner says. “He brought the assets of 3D animation, especially with camera movements, which I wasn’t as experienced with. He elevated the storyboard sequences to grandiose levels. We worked together smoothly, like a perfect marriage.”
Working on a new, original Illumination film provided the filmmakers with an expansive creative freedom. “It was reminiscent of my early days working on Despicable Me,” Homsy says. “We had the freedom to create a unique world and find the right tone for the movie. It’s also a more intimate and deeply thematic movie than I’ve done before. Working with Benjamin was a delight. We shared a similar vision, were both motivated to make something different and combine epic and poetic elements. He trusted me throughout the process and it was a fantastic experience.”
As Migration takes flight in theaters this holiday season, the filmmakers hope it inspires audiences to stretch their own wings and soar to unexpected destinations in their own lives. “I hope that resonates with people,” Renner says. “I hope this film encourages them to embrace the wonder that awaits beyond the horizon.”