An animated film about family. A teen protagonist that loves pop culture. A story that pits humans against robots. An unexpected road-trip that devolves into chaos. None of those ideas are unique. In fact, some of them have been covered by Sony Pictures Animation before, the studio that now brings us The Mitchells vs. the Machines. So when thinking about why audiences should watch this film, it’s tough to come up with a reason that doesn’t require some degree of fangirl-ing over the creative team that made it….
Firstly, it’s produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller—directors of The Lego Movie (2014) and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009), and producers of the Academy Award-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)—and directed by Michael Rianda, who was behind Disney’s critically-acclaimed Gravity Falls animated series. Secondly, the voice cast is stacked with stars like Abbi Jacobson (Broad City, Disenchantment) and Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids) and Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down). Oh, and Olivia Colman (The Favourite) plays a villainous smartphone called PAL. With all of those people involves, how is it possible to not be excited as a fan of animation and cinema?
This excitement one feels is mirrored by the teen protagonist of The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Katie (Jacobson). The aspiring filmmaker spends her time making comedic films she uploads to YouTube, and the story starts off with her being accepted to film school. Her non-tech-savvy awkward family decide to take an impromptu road-trip to drop her off, but it coincides with a robot uprising, requiring some much-needed heroism.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines manages to be heart-warming without being saccharine, thanks to a perfect calibration and innate understanding of family dynamics. Katie’s a passionate yet flawed teenager, her funny younger brother Aaron (Rianda) has an obsession with dinosaurs, and parents Rick (McBride) and Linda (Rudolph) are stereotypical yet distinctly warm in their love for their brood. And then there’s Monchi, the family dog, who plays a key comic relief role.
I couldn’t help feeling warm and fuzzy seeing a family that, while different from my own, showed the same good-natured ribbing and conflict. There are small details between how Katie and Aaron interact that are especially sweet, and parents are bound to connect with the tough decisions that Rick and Linda make.
Although the plot of The Mitchells vs. the Machines takes some detours, it does move in a mostly straight line towards a predictable conclusion. There’s not a lot of surprise here, but where the film shines is in the detours and details. The montage of road-trip shenanigans is marvellously funny, and I’ll never forget what a ‘Robertson Number 3’ screwdriver is, as one of the best iterations of Chekov’s Gun I’ve seen lately.
And while the story itself is universal, it manages to carve out its own niche by featuring a myriad of visual gags and film references. The number of Easter Eggs for film fans are too many to count, even after you include the gigantic 1990s Furby.
Katie’s passion for filmmaking also means she sees everything through ‘Katie vision’, which overlays 2D scrawls and effects that mimic hand-drawn filters over the film. Katie’s the creator of a popular online series called Dog Cop, and actively asks her family throughout the film to recreate moments for maximum cinematic effect. This helps the film stand out and brings to mind the unique effects of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This makes sense considering that The Mitchells vs. the Machines is made by the same studio, and uses the same animation techniques pioneered by Spider-Verse. It’s likewise a film that embraces its medium and makes full use of it.
Co-writers Rianda and Jeff Rowe add a lovely amount of self-awareness to every line; the former’s experience on Gravity Falls means you can expect a memorable but loveable character, and he delivers. The duo make tired scenes such as an evil villain monologue fresh and funny. The final battle is one that starts off straightforward enough, only to become incredibly funny while wrapping things up. The tone is beautifully off-kilter without being hard to connect with, and the voice cast is excellent. Olivia Colman, in particular, is fantastically OTT, and the supporting cast make characters such as two defective robots (voiced by Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett) sound relatable.
In the end, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a great family film. Film fans will love it especially, as it shows an overwhelming affection for the visual medium, but families in general are bound to find something they’ll like. It’s immensely easy to watch, with details that get funnier upon re-watching. And it manages to be unique in its details but universal in its appeal, which is a feat that’s hard to accomplish.
It’s a shame that the film won’t get a wide release in cinemas now Sony Picture Animation has sold it to Netflix. However, The Mitchells vs. the Machines might actually reach a larger proportion of families that way, as Trolls World Tour (2020) did last year.
USA • CANADA • FRANCE • HONG KONG | 2021 | 113 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Mike Rianda.
writers: Mike Rianda & Jeff Rowe.
voices: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Mike Rianda, Eric Andre, Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen, Blake Griffin & Conan O’Brien.