Before Pharrell Williams put in a surprise appearance to honor Chris Meledandri with Annecy’s Golden Ticket lifetime achievement award, the Illumination CEO joined “Migration” director Benjamin Renner for a wide-ranging conversation and to present the first 25 minutes of the film.
Though the duo made sure to mention that the excerpt was not quite locked, the opening salvo was nevertheless polished and sure-footed, giving Annecy attendees a good impression of the final form. Set for release on Dec. 22, “Migration” certainly pleased the crowd in Annecy – at least if auditorium’s laughs and applause offered any indication.
Those laughs began right from the Universal studio card, which replaced that familiar planetary overture with the crude music of Minions on kazoo. The visuals and tone quickly changed as Kumail Nanjiani promised a “bedtime story” in voiceover.
Painted in bright 2D, with open lines and brushstroke colors, the prologue might scan as fairytale – a conflicted one, as tellers Mack (Nanjiani) and wife Pam (Elizabeth Banks) change story beats on a whim – but once we cut to a more familiar 3D style, the wider film suggests something closer to “National Lampoon’s Mallard Vacation.”
Mack is a worry-dad, you see, who has found solace keeping his flock stuck in place in an autumnal pond somewhere in the Adirondack mountains. But the larger clan wants adventure, a desire only fueled by the arrival of a flock of migrating ducks making a pit-stop as they head south for the winter.
“I don’t want to miss out on life because you won’t leave this pond,” Pam tells her worrywart husband, and as the character’s face falls in resignation, we can see that he got the message. The quackerfamilias then rounds the family up and we follow them in glorious widescreen as they take off into the sky.
On-stage when the lights came back on, Renner and Meledandri unpacked the various music, cinematography, design and visual choices that animated the 25-minute excerpt, placing particular emphasis on Renner’s background as graphic-novel artist and 2D animator.
The director spoke of his process translating the minimalist style that marked his previous films “Ernest and Celestine” and “The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales” for a more straightforward CG landscape where everything needed to be shown.
Taking inspiration from mother nature, who thoughtfully designed the real life critters to be intensely physically expressive, Renner gave his mallard characters wide and expressive eyes, with undulating brows that act as punctuation marks, rising and falling to underscore each line and emotion.
Written by “The White Lotus” creator Mike White, the overall film will follow the flock from the pond home all the way to Jamaica – with more than a few pit stops along the way. Towards the end of the footage, Mack and clan (which includes his grouchy uncle Dan, voiced by Danny DeVito) shack up with a rangy heron (voiced by Carol Kane) to wait out a storm.
But aren’t herons a natural mallard predator? Or are Mack’s anxieties getting the better of him once more? And as it plays with these concerns, the film’s tonal register grows all the more frightening, echoing Renner’s belief that heightened emotions make the best road-trip memories – and sometimes those emotions include fear.