Hopefully the last film I review that was a casualty of the pandemic, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is fun, somewhat obnoxious, animated adventure with the energy of a ‘90s comic strip and a style that sets it apart from standard CGI fare. Sony clearly understands that the cel-shaded look of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a key part of its success, and the team behind The Mitchells did a fantastic job putting their own spin on things. I would have loved to see it on the big screen, but hopefully more people will get the chance to watch it on Netflix, as long as it doesn’t get lost among the bottomless offerings of the streaming platform.
Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is a creative teenager who makes weird experimental short films, sometimes involving her less-than-enthusiastic family. When she is accepted into her dream film school, she can’t wait to find her people and start a new life. Her father Rick (Danny McBride) wants one last attempt at family bonding and decides they will road trip to school. Along for the ride is mom Linda (Maya Rudolph), younger brother Aaron (Mike Rianda, the film’s director), and hapless pug Monchi (Doug the Pug, Instagram star). What seems like a very pedestrian family tale (appreciate each other, don’t just stare at your phone) is quickly derailed thanks to a robot uprising led by an evil operating system with the voice of Academy Award-winner Olivia Colman. It’s the sort of left turn that can only be rendered in animation.
With some luck, the Mitchells manage to hijack some robots to guide them through this tech apocalypse, hoping to shut down PAL and get things back to normal. The action can be dizzying, with Katie’s narration and 2D animated stickers punctuating the scenes like comic book sound effects. Everything comes together in a huge neon showdown, the fate of the human race depending on a pug strapped to a station wagon.
While I have no complaints about the animation, some of the character beats remain overly familiar and frustrating. We’ve seen parent-child conflicts like this many times, though this film has the added focus on technology distracting from real life experiences. Katie is also much fuller a character than Rick, making it harder to empathize with his plight when his role is to keep Katie from her future as long as he can. We understand he’s not an eloquent man, but it’s still aggravating. Linda and Aaron are fun characters, but there’s not much depth. The film hovers between family drama and robopocalypse better than I expected, but it’s still a bit shaky.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines deserves to be a success for not looking like an airless CGI bore we’ve come to accept as the standard of mainstream animation. It’s perfect for a family movie night, where sharp-eyed teens will perhaps notice Katie’s rainbow button and the way she nervously talks about a girl she’s excited to meet at school…
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Dir. Michael Rianda
Streaming Friday 4/30 exclusively on Netflix
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