Review by David Baldwin
Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) has just been accepted to film school. She is positively ecstatic at the thought of moving away from home and bonding with “her people”. Most of her family is excited too. Her father Rick (Danny McBride) however, just does not get it. They had a great relationship when she was younger, but now it is strained, and only gets worse when Rick insists he drives her and the rest of the family from Michigan to California in time for the first day of school.
Then a robot uprising happens – and humanity’s last hope suddenly lies with the Mitchell family.
That sounds like a wild description and The Mitchells vs. The Machines somehow becomes even wilder than that before the end credits roll. In some instances, it becomes downright chaotic and completely unhinged. And I loved every single minute of it.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines combines the sensibilities of Director/Co-Writer Mike Rianda and Co-Director/Co-Writer Jeff Rowe of Gravity Falls with the Oscar-winning Producing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of The Lego Movie, 21/22 Jump Street and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (and in another dimension, Solo: A Star Wars Story). What emerges is a wholly unique experience that is just as funny as it is inventive. It is a family road trip comedy first and foremost, but it is also a coming-of-age story and a dystopic satire centred around how much we over rely on technology. They take a few not-so subtle jabs at the culture and manic fandom surrounding Apple, but also hone in on how disconnected we have become from the people around us (which would explain why the title of the film was Connected when it was supposed to come to theatres last Fall). Some of the targets they hit are easy and obvious – though the jokes about free wi-fi are spot-on – while others go a bit deeper than you might expect from an animated film for families. They also inject a fair amount of pop culture references and homages into the mix, with Kill Bill being a primary source and an extended bit that will have you looking at your old Furby doll with more horrified skepticism than usual. And for an animated family film, I applaud how it sneaks in a passing nod to one character’s sexual orientation in a way that is so normalized and positive that many viewers might not even notice.
While all of that is great, what really makes The Mitchells vs. The Machines special is its visual style. It smashes up traditional hand drawn 2D animation with more modern 3D animation in ways you will never expect and even adds in flourishes of live action into the mix. It reminded me a lot of Spider-Verse, but it looks more crude and unpolished (and a whole lot less comic booky). That may sound like a criticism, but I assure you it is much the opposite. That imperfect style gives the film a certain amount of charm that is severely lacking in our post-Pixar animated landscape. The expressions on the characters’ faces feel more animated and lively, and the little details sprinkled throughout the film in 2D would not work at all if they were all rendered in 3D. I am looking at images as I write this and cannot even fathom the sheer amount of work the animators put into bringing this film to life. It is staggeringly beautiful to behold, and the word Oscar is going off in my brain like a flashing neon sign. It is far too early to make that proclamation, yet I know in my bones that this will be a hard one to top in terms of originality, look and feel by the time the end of the year comes.
I went into The Mitchells vs. The Machines as blind as possible, so imagine my surprise to hear McBride voicing a loving father who always tries to do the right thing, instead of a character who embraces the selfish asshole persona he has practically perfected over the past decade and a half. Not surprisingly, he does terrific for himself and has a lot of fun with the character, as does Jacobson who really hones in on the teenage girl yearning for adulthood and the endless possibilities that come with it. While they are the heart and soul of the movie, they are just part of the incredible ensemble brought together here. Maya Rudolph is aces as Mitchell family matriarch Linda, Rianda has a blast as Katie’s brother Aaron and Oscar-winner Olivia Colman brings her dry British wit to the villainous PAL operating system. Her character is basically an emoji on a cell phone, but you can tell she is having the time of her life doing her voice. The supporting cast featuring Eric Andre, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Conan O’Brien, Charlyne Yi and real life couple Chrissy Teigen and John Legend all get a moment or three to shine, and Instagram star Doug the Pug even gets to join in on the fun as the voice of the Mitchells’ dog Monchi – who steals the show more times than you will be able to count.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines has a little something for everyone. It is a wonderful film for the whole family, and the kind of movie eagle eyed viewers will take joy in rewatching endlessly to discover all the clever references and little secrets lovingly added to every frame. The style is unique, the laughs are plentiful and the voice acting is terrific. The pandemic rages on, but if we could get a few more heartwarming and ridiculously entertaining films like this to watch while we wait for some amount of normalcy to kick back in, it may become ever so slightly more bearable.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines streams on Netflix starting Friday, April 30, 2021.