Starring: Abbi Jacobson (Broad City), Danny McBride (Pineapple Express), Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids), Mike Rianda, Eric Andre (Bad Trip), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Fred Armisen (Portlandia), Beck Bennett (Brigsby Bear)
Director: Mike Rianda
Writers: Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe (Gravity Falls)
Runtime: 1 hour 50 minutes
Release Date: 30th April (Netflix)
More often than not, animated films are made primarily with children in mind. Plenty of them have sly jokes or deeper messages that only adults will pick up on, but their focus remains on being bright feelgood entertainment for the under 12s. On the other end, animation aimed at adults tends to go far in the other direction; e.g. profanity-spewing primetime cartoons, blood-drenched anime and…whatever the hell Heavy Metal was. It’s rare to find an animated film made outside Japan that balances the needs of those two audiences so well, telling an action-packed story with adult themes and intelligent humour that doesn’t ostracise anyone young in the audience. The perfect blend probably still doesn’t exist, but The Mitchells vs. The Machines certainly comes pretty damn close.
Though only produced by Phil Lord & Chris Miller rather than written or directed, The Mitchells vs. The Machines has a very similar manic energy and squishy heart to their debut feature Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, but with a maturity to its storytelling that more echoes Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The plot is an amusing blend of a road trip comedy and a sci-fi apocalypse adventure, being very self-aware of the tropes of both genres and finding some great ways to modernise and subvert them. The pacing is perhaps a little too rushed in its first act, needlessly starting in media res before flipping back in a way that diminishes the surprise of the sudden robot uprising. Luckily though, once the story proper gets going and the characters are allowed to expand out of their archetypes, the film finds its groove and juggles plot, humour and action without missing a beat.
All of that and more is plenty to recommend the movie to young audiences, but what really sets The Mitchells vs. The Machines apart is how it handles its weightier elements. Unlike so many stories about computers causing the end of the world, it doesn’t devolve into a technophobic screed, but instead flips it around and focuses its ire on corporate greed and careless consumers. It’s a funnier and more honest portrayal of how disasters are caused by stupidity and carelessness rather than some God-fearing karmic nonsense, and technology plays as important a part in saving humanity as it does in dooming it.
But more than its smart commentary on our tech-dependent culture, the film’s greatest strength comes in its mature depiction of a dysfunctional family, and all of that is thanks to the excellent characterisation brought to life by the spectacular voice cast. Abbi Jacobson makes for an immediately engaging and idiosyncratic lead as aspiring filmmaker Katie Mitchell, whose frenzied quirkiness is well balanced with her longing for approval and encouragement. The film’s core appeal lies in her relationship with her handyman luddite father Rick, voiced with much exuberance by Danny McBride, and his own insecurities and hang-ups are more than understandable. The father-daughter conflict is hardly revolutionary but it’s done with a lot of nuance and care, ultimately telling a story of unconditional love and bridging the generational divide that a lot of families should see themselves in. My only real issue with Katie is her being yet another example of Hollywood queerbating. Sure, her sexuality is confirmed by the story’s end and isn’t important to the main narrative, but making that a more defined part of her character would have been both a great piece of representation and complimented the film’s themes of acceptance.
On the other side of the Mitchell family, Maya Rudolph is as hilarious as ever playing matriarch Linda, expertly playing the eager-to-please mother with a hidden fire in her belly, whilst writer/director Mike Rianda is an absolute delight as the neurotic, dinosaur-obsessed younger brother Aaron. Olivia Colman makes for a delightful villain as the scorned AI overlord PAL, bringing a human relatability so often lacking from the Skynets and Ultrons of machine overlords past, and Eric Andre is fantastic too as her careless tech giant creator Mark Bowman. However, the characters who surprisingly get the most laughs are definitely Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett as a bickering pair of malfunctioning robots who unwittingly help the Mitchells on their world-saving quest; their mechanical delivery and bewildered attempts to deny their deficiencies turn even the simplest of lines into comedic gold.
In a market where so many animated films end up looking like each other, Sony Pictures Animation have been doing a great job lately of making their films visually distinctive. It’s easy to take a quick look at The Mitchells vs. The Machines and say it’s basically using the same techniques as the studio’s Spider-Verse, but beyond some slight aesthetic similarities this film has a very different approach to its animation. Again, it hues much closer to Lord & Miller’s earlier animated outings, with exaggerated character movements and cartoony production design that ring closer to Hanna-Barbera than they do Pixar or comic books. With its vibrant watercolour palette and clever use of memes, it’s a unique and gorgeous movie where its shaggy edges, much like Katie’s home movies, are all a part of its charm. Mark Mothersbaugh delivers a fantastic techno-infused score as usual, and the film’s eclectic choice of needle drops are also inspired; no other movie could include Talking Heads, T.I. and Sigur Rós on the same soundtrack and make it seem cohesive, but this film does it somehow.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines is that rare animated film that is truly “suitable for all ages” whilst not explicitly being a “kids movie”. Like much of Lord & Miller’s catalogue, it’s a great example of how a film can be childish whilst still being intelligent and emotionally mature, delivering an experience that hits the brain and the heart in equal measure. It’s a film that was clearly as much fun to make as it is to watch, and that love for the art of filmmaking is evident in every frame of animation. I can’t think of the last film I watched where the end credits made me cry, but they once again drive home that this is a movie for families in the greatest sense of the term. No matter the size or shape of your kin, whether you have lots of kids with you or none at all, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is a movie every member of the family will get something out of.
FINAL VERDICT: 9/10