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PLOT: A software update from a major tech corporation sends robots on a hunt to round up the human race, and the last humans left, the Mitchell family, are tasked with bringing down the machine uprising.
REVIEW: Since their breakout with the colorful and charming Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, writer/producer/director team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have delivered some of the most unique animated titles of the last decade – including The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Being able to slap those titles on the marketing materials for any future animated films means we as an audience get to expect something zany, brilliantly animated, and with no shortage of heart. Anything less would be a bit of a downer, but with the brilliant minds of Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe as writers and directors, their latest, THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES, offers up the kind of manic pacing, vibrant animation and human-level sweetness that make it another winner in a growing canon of animated excellence.
Wasting no time revealing that the candy-colored visuals come hand-in-hand with a nigh-constant sugar rush, we’re introduced to the Mitchell family as they barrel through a squad of robots hunting them, the last remaining humans. But as soon as the fast-paced antics rope you into this wild world, we take a step back and get to know the Mitchells pre-machine takeover. Presented as the most off-kilter family you’re likely to meet, the family of four is probably as accurate to the modern family as you’re likely to see. The story predominantly focuses on Katie (Abbi Jacobson), a wildly inventive aspiring filmmaker who dreams of venturing off to film school, and away from her father, Rick (Danny McBride), who simply doesn’t understand – or see the value in – her art, preferring to build cabins and set possum traps than learn how to use the internet. Then there’s the mother, Linda (Maya Rudolph), who is stretched a bit thin trying to keep the familial unit afloat, and the youngest son, Aaron (Rianda), with a dinosaur obsession that makes the word “obsession” seems like an undersell. Together they’re dysfunctional and awkward with Katie and Rick’s dynamic representing the void between the tech-savvy, creatively-driven new generation and their blue-collar parents, who just want their kids to find a job that won’t leave them starving.
With the ripples in the family unit establishing the emotional stakes in the story, Rianda and Rowe also paint them as the least capable team to survive the impending mechanical takeover. But the takeover comes regardless, with a young tech genius (Eric Andre) at the head of a corporation called Pal (think Amazon meshed with Apple) mistreating his advanced AI system (voiced by the scene-stealing Olivia Colman), shoving it aside for advanced robotic tech. But as a statement on our reliance on technology and increasing subservience to it, the AI easily takes over the army of robots, making them hunt down all humans, place them in comfortable, WiFi-fitted spheres, and then prepare to launch them into the void of space.
While it takes some time to get into the actual clash with the machines, with the first solid half of the movie establishing the rift between father and daughter, I did find myself needing some time to adjust to the visual style of Mitchells and the abundance of zaniness driving it. Like a blend of Meatballs and Spider-Verse, the animation style appears like a mesh of now-typical 3D computer animation, and the kind of hand-drawn, comic book-inspired feel that made the latter movie pop on-screen. I spent so much time awe-ing over everything from character designs to the overall world they live in, which also left me struggling a bit to keep up with how quickly everything moves. It looks brilliant and commands your attention, but the whole thing seemed aimed to keep the eyes of the younger viewers with dwindling attention spans.
But while that may sound like a minor deterrent for older viewers, the fact of the matter is there’s so much to marvel at from a technical standpoint that any viewer may have a hard time peeling their eyes away. Particularly when we’re taken to the sleek headquarters of Pal – now run by the AI virtual assistant and its robot army – there’s a tapestry of rich colors and that makes every frame burst off the screen. With Disney and Pixar often dominating the landscape, here is proof that Sony’s animation division should continue to lean into this bolder approach that can make both establishing shots and action scenes pack an arresting punch. Factor in yet another transcendent synth score from Mark Mothersbaugh (Spider-Verse, Thor: Ragnarok), and when Mitchells really gets going there’s much that gives it a unique sense of scope.
That burst of imagination extends just as much to the humor as it does the spectacle, with hardly a moment going by without some dash of the weirdness or meta-humor that made the likes of Lego Movie so constantly funny. A lot of shots are taken at humanity in general by the likes of Colman’s PAL and her army of often silly robots, poking fun at our inability to exist without WiFi and our complacency as long as we’re comfortable and have access to YouTube. Colman digs into PAL with a comedic bite that relishes a rage and loathing for humans, breathing so much life into what is, essentially, Siri deciding to murder us all. Mitchells is at its funniest when it’s skewering current consumer culture, like in a mall sequence for the ages when the family is attacked by a series of software-enabled appliances, crescendoing with a side-splitting attack via a certain nostalgic toy.
At its core, however, is the story of the family, particularly of father and daughter. Even amongst all the action and meta gags, Rianda and Rowe’s script makes every interaction feel grounded by the dynamic between Katie and Rick. If I did walk away not as emotionally invested in their journey, though, it’s not so much for lack of trying as it is their arc feeling stretched over a bit-too-long runtime (just under two hours), and so much colorful chaos. We know Rick and Katie are of two different worlds, but their relationship doesn’t quite get the space for exploration beyond their base differences once the story gets moving. As well, while they get their chances to shine, both Linda and Aaron do tend to feel like they’re mostly just along for the ride – well-written characters who just aren’t quite as key to the story. I can’t say Rianda and Rowe don’t really love these characters or see their emotional journey as important as the more spectacular elements, but sadly, I did walk away with more affinity for the latter than the former. The entire voice cast that makes up the family is excellent, though, with Jacobson’s spirited, energetic work as Katie pairing nicely opposite the way McBride’s goofy, sweet approach cuts through Rick’s old-school manliness. Then, of course, Rudolph is as excellent as always, with Rianda a true scene-stealer as the neurotic, dinosaur-loving Aaron.
Even if The Mitchells vs. The Machines doesn’t quite enrapture on a narrative level as it does a sensory one, there’s nothing the movie is truly lacking. The heart and tenderness are always there right alongside the pure mania of the visuals and action, with an often strange sense of humor that makes it all the more lovable. In fact, it’s such a fun time it’s shame that, due to the COVID pandemic, that the movie had to skirt a major theatrical release and be sold off to Netflix, meaning most people will be seeing it at home (which is a good call, for safety). There’s plenty to love here that would’ve made seeing it on the big screen a real treat after this last year. And yet, so much still bounces off even the smallest screen in such stunning fashion that, like the Mitchells vs a robotic apocalypse, there’s not much that can hold this movie back.