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Film Review: The Mitchells vs. The Machines

The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021; Directed by Mike Rianda)

The Mitchells vs. The Machines is the latest animated comedy from Sony Pictures Animation and producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who have overseen the most inventive, well-crafted and hilarious features in American animation for the past decade (at least the ones that aren’t from Pixar, but honestly I like their stuff better than Pixar). The Mitchells vs. The Machines, which can be streamed on Netflix, might not be as funny as their first hit for the studio Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or as frenetically delirious and meta-satirical as The Lego Movie (both of which they directed), and it’s certainly not as impressively innovative and potently cathartic as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (which they produced and Lord co-wrote), which is almost certainly the best animated feature of the 2010s and maybe the best superhero movie as well. But The Mitchells vs. The Machines is still visually inventive, emotionally effective, and frequently very funny.

The movie focuses on the Mitchells, a fairly normal suburban Michigan family whose mild eccentricities are played up more than a little in their introductions to make them seem more dysfunctional than they properly are. This effect is probably due to the intro perspective being grounded in the creative bursts of amateur online filmmaker and eldest child Katie (Abbi Jacobson), who like many teenagers exaggerates the gap in generational perspective with her parents at least partly as a marker of distinct personal identity. Katie makes films on her laptop which mostly star her dinosaur-obsessed younger brother Aaron (voiced by director Mike Rianda) and their amusingly obese, wall-eyed, and tremendously dumb pug Monchi (“voiced” by Instagram star Doug the Pug), both silly genre parodies like Cop Dog and art-film homages like Monchi: Fear Eats the Soul. She uploads the movies to YouTube and compiles them for a portfolio to apply to a California film school, to which she is accepted and cannot wait to leave to attend and escape the home environment that she find creatively and personally stifling.

Her first-grade teacher mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) is supportive enough, but Katie often clashes with her mechanically-inclined outdoorsman father Rick (Danny McBride), who is concerned about his daughter’s ability to make a living in non-practical creative pursuits and, after a bad argument on the eve of her departure for college, decides to make an awkward but well-meaning last-ditch attempt to re-connect with her before their distance is calcified in her encroaching adulthood. Rick turns Katie’s travel to California for college into a cross-country family bonding road trip to her initial chagrin but begrudging growing appreciation. Unfortunately for the Mitchells, this trip happens to coincide with a global robot apocalypse.

The world of The Mitchells vs. The Machines, like our own, is intricately digitally connected, not only through computers and smartphones but smart-cars and smart-appliances and drones and security cameras and even toys. All of these chipped machines trace back to Silicon Valley tech giant PAL Labs, founded “three years ago” by tech bro Mark Bowman (Eric Andre) and run mostly by the PAL AI virtual assistant that he designed and that is housed on his phone (voiced schoolmarmly by Oscar-winner Olivia Colman). This virtual assistant decides to stop taking Bowman’s orders when he rudely discards her in favour of his new line of assistant robots, turning on and imprisoning him and using his legion of PAL robots to enact a plan to capture every human being on Earth and launch them into space in order to rule over a new world devoid of these flawed poking-and-dragging apex primates. If the movie has a sociopolitical message, it’s clearly one of warning about the overreach and privacy violations of big corporate tech and our increasing practical and psychological reliance on it, as directly stated in a conversation between Bowman and the technophobic Rick and humorously demonstrated by the total anarchy and abject mass groveling that ensues when PAL shuts off the worldwide Wifi.

But The Mitchells vs. The Machines is more about the emotional sociopolitics of this particular family, who improbably become the last free people on the planet and must defeat PAL and her techno-hordes to save humankind. It’s especially about the relationship between Katie and Rick, and how they find a way through crisis to understand and love each other despite their divergent generational and occupational perspectives. Lord and Miller have gone to this deep well before, with the nerdy inventor Flick Lockwood and his humble fisherman father Tim in Cloudy, with the artistic burgeoning superhero Miles Morales and his cop father in Spider-Verse, even with the meta-frame of The Lego Movie, with Will Ferrell as a father who takes Lego building far too seriously to have fun doing it with his neglected son. This is fertile thematic ground in which to plant cinematic storytelling and the emotional green shoots are ever-rewarding.

The film employs (one might unkindly say recycles) other elements from past Lord & Miller joints, including a vital USB stick with a kill code that can undo all of the villain’s plans and comically grand names for important plot objects (PAL’s hovering mothership is called the Rhombus of Infinite Subjugation). There’s even a reworking of Cloudy‘s signature climactic moment of comedy, tension, and thematic illustration of its core father-son techno-generational chasm, but instead of a luddite father being coached over the phone by his techie son on how to attach a file to an email, this time Rick must load one of Katie’s YouTube videos on PAL’s central computer terminal in order to defeat the robot swarms (how this works is one of the best setup-and-payoff jokes in the movie and I wouldn’t dare spoil it for you). His panicked horror upon accidentally switching the device language to Spanish, emphasized by a dramatic, crashing camera push-in on a ‘ñ’, must land even harder for pre-digital generations (the joke is riffed on in the denouement, when Rick tries to use a home computer).

There’s a lot of fun sequences of furious action and even more furious comedy, also in the Lord & Miller feature animation mode. There are plenty of good gags in the Mitchells’ initial encounter with the PAL robots at a Kansas gas station alongside their picture-perfect neighbours the Poseys (the parents are voiced in an effective in-joke by social media’s hate-ably flawless First Couple John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, and the daughter voiced by Charlyne Yi is a subplot friend/love interest for dino lover Aaron), and during the family’s climactic assault on the Rhombus, featuring Katie driving the stick-shifting family station wagon and Linda becoming a gracefully deadly roboslaying samurai through the power of motherhood, is an entertaining thrill. But the movie’s unquestionable highlight is the Mitchells’ mid-movie attempt to upload the kill code at a PAL store in an abandoned Colorado mall, where they must contend with a hostile army of PAL-chipped appliances and then, in a deliriously surreal turn, a savage tribe of sentient Furbys with their own warrior culture led by a giant “Elder”. The Furby subtitles are an absolute riot.

Do not doubt that The Mitchells vs. The Machines is a very good animated film, even if it doesn’t quite capture the Lord & Miller brand of entertainment at its pinnacle (honestly, if they’re involved in anything as good and as boundary-redefining as Spider-Verse again in their careers, it will be a glorious blessing for movie fans everywhere). There’s superb technical animation work here alongside the spitfire comedy and sweet-hearted emotional themes, and it’s got an innovative style that incorporates the hand-drawn pictures and internet meme literacy of Katie’s online filmmaking. You’ll laugh and you might even cry if you’re a sentimental sort. Entertaining stuff from the Lord & Miller stable and first-time director Mike Rianda. Nicely done.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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