How many robot-uprising apocalypses are too many?, one might (rightfully) ask upon the Friday Netflix release of animated family comedy “The Mitchells vs. the Machines.” With reliably imaginative storytellers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller producing, the question – thankfully – is moot.
Best known as the creative forces behind “21 Jump Street,” “The Lego Movie” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” the duo’s oddball energy here manifests thematically as well as in the Terminator-esque determination of a kaiju-sized Furby—confirming Lord and Miller are motivated by the same endearingly loopy attitudes they brought to those aforementioned properties as they are bringing to this, their first original story nestled in a well-trodden subgenre. When it comes to the familiar, expect the unexpected.
That ethos explains why the fruits of this partnership remain satisfyingly sweet 12 years after they broke into Hollywood, and why it’s increasingly obvious how they were never really going to direct a Han Solo-centric escapade for Disney. While the rest of Hollywood boxes itself into rote re-ups of existing properties, Lord and Miller tend to take their influences in the other direction towards striking new aesthetic and emotional places.
Fittingly, this tension between practicality and ambition is foundational to the smartly crafted “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” (directed by Michael Rianda, with Jeff Rowe credited as co-director), filtered through the shaky central dynamic between quirky film-school-student-to-be Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) and her father, Rick (Danny McBride). We’ve seen this relationship before – college-age teen as a meteor of upstart energy, helpless dad struggling to meet her halfway like when she was an infant, mother and brother characters awkwardly doing what they can – but among the various echoes of Lord and Miller is a trademark storytelling swiftness and visual ingenuity which go a long way towards freshening up familiar archetypes. Miniature hand-drawn storm clouds pop up around the sleekly animated Katie when her parents insist on driving her to college, and the inventive framing device of depicting the plot’s bombastic confrontations to come through her low-fi but passionate cinematic senses keeps the audience primed for the next gag. And the next one is always around the corner; this one of the funniest and most purely entertaining movies of the year so far.
Co-written by Rianda and Rowe, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” also has a contemporary state of mind when it comes to examining the widening generational perspectives filling 21st-century households, and for as much as the filmmakers try to plant our investment in the Mitchells as the apparent weirdos of their neighborhood, it’s far more interesting to see how the dings and chirps of pervasive technology has warped a family for whom holding 10 seconds of undivided attention is imbued with the pre-head-explosion tension of “Scanners.”
That’s a funny, contained trailer-ready moment, sure. But backing it up is a genuinely nuanced portrayal about how much stock we put in our screens, and into people whose faces we’ve only seen in digitized form. This clan isn’t cartoonishly dysfunctional to the tune of, say, the McCallisters of “Home Alone,” thanks to an impressive voice cast which manages to ground the dramatic tremors early on. Rather, they get along just well enough, so long as the various glowing screens are there to buffer the bonds, much to Instagram-averse Rick’s dismay.
Between “Eighth Grade,” “Ingrid Goes West” and as-yet-unreleased Sundance standout “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” the disruptions of the digital age continue to be fertile ground for the movies, providing a spark for structural innovation as well as timely commentary. That the ease of social media and technological accessibility has resulted in newfound contradictions for the industry to wrestle with is part and pixelized parcel with the strangeness of navigating the online landscape altogether; the past year, after all, has only exacerbated the best and worst things about living through screens.
“The Mitchells vs. the Machines” understands that ultramodern paradox, and depicts it with Pixar-ready sincerity even as lightning-fast narrative developments set a new record for the corruption of ostensibly friendly A.I. (here via an Siri-surrogate voiced by a deliciously menacing Olivia Colman that’s just a bit too self-aware for humanity’s own good; in the place of Skynet is fictional Silicon Valley corporation “Pal”). In short order, armies of robots are dispatched to gather the human race, which of course provides Rick with an excuse to joyfully destroy his family’s phones, tablets, iWatches, whathaveyou—and fully sets the stage for a story about unlikely heroes caught in extraordinary circumstances.
It’s a familiar template that “Mitchells vs. the Machines” delights in upending while keeping the emotional focus on Katie and Rick’s learning how to find their way back to each other, a narrative through-line which grants more than a few moments of catharsis and staunch self-reflection. Of all of Rianda and Rowe’s attempts to cut through false assumptions of animation as a strictly binary medium of surface-level ideas, it’s the connections they draw between relationships, art and the modern tendency for everything to be captured on video that are sharpest. What could possibly be genuine in a time when anything and everything is artificial? “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” marks a strong attempt to justify the lack of a clear answer to that question, and the culmination is as stirring as it is exciting.
There’s plenty for kids and adults to appreciate along the way, including a robust buffet of references anchored by a reliable devotion to the colorfully bizarre which makes the movie’s location-hopping structure much easier to swallow. It also has an uncanny ability to keep its pathos in stride with its zaniest bits; Monchi, the family’s perpetually cross-eyed pug, plays a pivotal role in both aims, resulting in an effect which also feels keenly Lordandmiller-esque. One of the funniest sequences in the whole affair is a Rise-of-the-Machines-style set piece in a deserted mall that splits the difference between being informed by tech’s presence everywhere in our reality and understanding what we’ve simply accepted; namely, how ludicrous that very omnipresence is. If Wi-Fi is needed not only to check Twitter but also to stop the end of the world, of course we’re screwed. But better to remedy your relationship to your family while taking down a sentient robotic menace than never, right?
"The Mitchells vs. the Machines" is rated PG for action and some language. It's availble to stream on Netflix Friday.
Starring: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Michael Rianda
Directed by Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe
- ‘Together Together’ Review: Patti Harrison submits a star-making turn opposite Ed Helms in a different kind of rom-com
- ‘In the Earth’ Review: Ben Wheatley’s eco-horror tale taps into pandemic-era anxieties at the most twisted of moments
- ‘Voyagers’ Review: Stale sci-fi parable wastes its ensemble of young stars
- ‘Moffie’ Review: A gorgeously grim story of apartheid-era suppression
- ‘Slalom’ Review: Frostbitten French drama examines abuse in the world of amateur athletics
- ‘The Unholy’ Review: An invocation for a mostly forgettable faith-themed horror mystery
- ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ Review: A blockbuster to make up for a year of lost blockbusters