The Mitchells Vs The Machines
You know, we are now a quarter of the way through the year, and I don’t think it has actually been a very good one for film. Check out my top ten for the year to the right, at least at time of writing, and you’ll see a list that so far contains a fair bit of only slightly above-average, with very good offerings like The White Tiger easily fending off the challenge from good, but not “best of the year” good, offerings like Sputnik and The Dig. I’ve been looking for a new release that could credibly change that dynamic, not because I’m desperate to see The White Tiger off the top spot, but because I didn’t want the first half of 2021 to be mostly a write off.
Enter The Mitchells Vs The Machines. Like most of the rest of the world, I was a big fan of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, even if I caught it too late to include it in my 2018 rankings, and the thought of watching the fourth Christopher Miller/Phil Lord collaboration with Sony Pictures Animation – the excellent Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs franchise comprises the other two, after Spidey – was something to whet the appetite. Add in the writers of the brilliant Gravity Falls, a cast of comedy greats and a fun-looking premise, and you have yourself something that I would have paid good money to watch in a cinema, but I’ll happily settle for Netflix. Have Miller and Lord done it again? And does 2021 finally have a five star offering?
Would-be filmmaker Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is desperate to go to college and leave behind the family she has always felt somewhat removed from: manic younger brother Aaron (Mike Rianda), perennially FOMO-suffering mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) and her outdoorsman father Rick (Danny McBride) who finds his daughters acumen with technology and auteur aspirations impossible to understand. Eager to repair a connection that was strongest when Katie was a kid, Rich convinces his family to take a cross-country road trip to bring her to college, but things go awry when robots, led by a spurned AI (Olivia Colman) seeking revenge, enact a plan to take over the world.
Well, I wasn’t disappointed. The Mitchells Vs The Machines – given a suitably awesome name change after initially being dubbed Connected, yawn – flies confidently into the top spot of my rankings, doing so on the back of a wonderful story, an hilarious and moving script, gorgeous visuals and a sense of confidence about itself that is sanguinely inspiring to see. This is, to use an unlikely cliche, a real rocket-buster of a movie, the kind of thing that hits all of the required sweet spots for the genre and style, and then goes above and beyond to deliver something really unique and wonderful. This is animation and comedic/action as it really should be.
It’s hard to know where to start exactly, but lets first look at the beating heart of the film, which is the evolving, devolving and then re-evolving relationship between Katie and Rick Mitchell. Father/daughter relationships have never been fallow ground for film-making, but The Mitchells vs The Machines knocks it out of the park, with a sometimes subtle, sometimes blunt, but always heartwarming exploration of the difficulties male parents sometimes have finding any kind of connection with adolescent women. On the back of really great VA performances from Jacobson (playing a very similar part to her role in the decidedly less awesome Disenchantment) and McBride, we go through a range of awesome set-pieces in this regard: Rick struggling to fully buy into his daughters dreams of going to film school; Katie awkwardly rejecting Rick’s efforts to run back the clock to times when they were closer; Katie coming to realise just how much her father has done, and given up, for her.
There’s something very affecting about Rick’s enthusiastic, but frequently ill-judged, efforts to improve his relationship with Katie, just as there is with Katie’s desire to break free, heedless of the emotional maelstrom it is creating in her parents. There’s subtle characterisation here, leading to bigger audience-experienced revelations, the kind you don’t see enough in this sub-genre. To elaborate, Rick’s pushing of his daughter to a have a back-up plan if film school doesn’t work out is more than just stereotypical over-parenting, it’s a behavior motivated by a deep-seeded emotional experiences of his own. At the same time, Katie’s self-felt status as an outsider is more than just teenage awkwardness, with the simple prop of a Pride pin enough to make the point before it becomes more explicit, but never suffocatingly so, in late dialogue.
The Mitchell family are really well realised. Katie could just be another annoying teenage girl, but is a much realer, more well-rounded figure. Her father could be just another obstacle for the hero to be won over, but he’s really someone to be understood. Her mother and brother could be pointless side-players, but have a humanity to them: Maya Rudolph excels as a woman who pathetically uses a filter to make family photos seem happier and is silently desperate to heal the family divide, and director Mike Rianda, pulling double-duty, is wonderful as the likely-on-the-spectrum brother, whose obsession with dinosaurs hides a deep-seeded fear of the family unit he is used to becoming broken up. The four interact so well, and you can instantly put them in the form of that two parents, two kids dynamic. That is to say, the human touches are tangible and real: it’s clear the Mitchells have a real world basis, in every in-joke, in every act of unlikely affection and every unspoken understanding.
In terms of larger things to say, The Mitchells Vs The Machines draws an effective line between the desire for connection between family members and the more digital connections that dominate our modern lives. Katie spends her life with her face buried in social media fields – provided by PAL and its founder “Mark Bowman”, an Eric Andre voiced stand-in for Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Steve Jobs – to the disgust of her father, who calls the video sharing site “Yub Tub”. When Dad calls for 10 seconds of family eye-contact, said family reacts like their dealer is holding out on them. But The Mitchells Vs The Machines does not go for the easy route of just criticising such technological consumption as an automatic evil, to the family or society.
Instead, it goes for something more nuanced by the end, where the connectivity offered by such devices is seen in, I would say, more of a good than bad light: a method of literally connecting people in a way they couldn’t before. Even the film’s villain – an AI spurned by its creator who decides to try and off humanity for revenge, voiced amazingly by Olivia Colman – wants connection. We have a dependency on screens alright, and the film does challenge us on that point, but the larger message of family ties trumping everything remains, deflecting any fears of a shallow Luddite manifesto: it’s what saves the day, after efforts to convince PAL that humans are redeemable because of their capacity for love only results in a literal kick in the balls.
Perhaps more importantly than any of that, the film is incredibly funny. If you liked the sort of broad humour of Gravity Falls, also skewing dark but consistently able to appeal to young minds and old (Rianda has described the tone as “Black Mirror for kids”), then you will adore this. The film overflows with amazing one-liners, humorous non-sequiturs and recurring jokes that are peppered in with aplomb. A few, among so very many, stand-out: Deborahbot 5000 (Fred Armisen) and Eric (Beck Bennett) as two damaged robots who join the Mitchell family, providing macabre laughs with every utterance (right to the end, where one ponders “Mother, what is death?”); captured humans being carted off to the “rhombus of infinite subjugation); a giant Furby who tries to kill the Mitchells while proclaiming that “The dark harvest has begun!”; society collapsing in seconds when PAL flicks off the wi-fi, with people suggesting a sacrifice to the figure of “the router” while a woman tearfully asks if anyone will take a picture of her food; a donkey ride that ends with the donkey being condemned to “belong to the canyon now”; Aaron’s panicked reaction to any kind of affection from the girl he likes (“Goodbye foreverrrrrrrrr”); the Mitchells dog whose bizarre appearance is enough to make robots shut down owing to being unable to identify him as a dog, a pig or a loaf of bread; or the information video the robots play for the captured humans, indicated that their coming flight into space (courtesy of “Foolish Humans Air”) will last “FOREVER” with the line a mad-libs style insert.
But it is more than just the fact that the film is funny, and consistently funny, scene-to-scene. It’s that it is able to marry this humour to the unfolding family relationships and drama without turning them into a Zucker Brothers skit. The comedy of The Mitchells Vs The Machines is all over the spectrum, but curiously never feels like it in the moment, coming as it does from characters that do seem very real to the audiences’ eyes. Everything flows, as easily as robots ferrying humans for the apocalypse. The meshing here is something that the writers were able to pull on in Gravity Falls, and that the producers been able to pull off in just about everything they have ever made, but The Mitchells Vs The Machines is easily the best example of it. Other animated films throw in jokes all over the place, and settle for this – think the Despicable Me franchise which birthed the Minions, which is good but too often settles for humour that seems inserted after the fact, or has no relevance to the plot – but The Mitchells Vs The Machines is closer to the likes of Pixar, most especially Up, Toy Story 3 or WALL-E, for presenting what is, at heart, a serious story with complex relationships, but managing to have the characters telling that story do so with laughter, whether it is biting wit or suitably timed pratfalls.
Of course The Mitchells Vs The Machines looks amazing. “Shot” in a similar style to that of Into The Spider-Verse while avoiding the distracting comic-bookey texture, it’s a great example of the kind of colour, depth of field and imagination that can still be captured in 2-D animation, and married to the 3-D kind in the rest of the movie. Yes, there’s something a little cliche about the depiction of characters – the broad-shouldered dad, the wide-hipped mom, the manic little brother, the tomboy – but it’s easy to look past this with everything else on display. The Mitchells Vs The Machines largely eschews cartoony visualisations in favour of more grounded stuff, even when it is married to zany action: the robot menace looks clean, sterile and uniform (unless they are drawing faces on their visors), and with more than a little hint of Tron at times (more on that in just a sec). Like Spider-Man, and more directly the MCU movies, the visuals do a great job of tying into the humour of the piece, with numerous cutaways to a comic-book/doodle style of still scene-setting, and even the occasional bit of live-action to keep you on your toes. A synthy score, with clear inspiration from Tron and Tron: Legacy, as well as maybe a dash of Portal 2, is a really good accompaniment, with fine work from Mark Mothersbaugh.
The Mitchells Vs The Machines slots very easily into a provisional pole on my 2021 rankings. To re-use a very old cliche, it is a film that the whole family can enjoy, and how. The cast is great, inhabiting their roles with ease and really making the experience come to life. The film looks amazing, with Sony Pictures Animation now firmly established as really only just behind Pixar in the industry. it has a very personable story to tell, one that is moving and emotional. And all of this is married to enough jokes to fill other movies several times over. It has a heart and it has a brain. Entertaining, engaging, The Mitchells Vs The Machines makes me hungry to see what both this director, writing team and production duo can come ip with next, as they seem to have difficulty actually missing the target. They certainly didn’t with this one. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix)