Animated generational divides have never been more like a sci-fi carnival than in The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Writer/director Mike Rianda’s feature debut (he and co-writer/director Jeff Rowe made their bones on the excellently spooky, silly show Gravity Falls) is equal parts absurd, endearing and terrifying. It’s easy to feel as lost or overwhelmed by the flashing lights and exhilarating sights as the central family fighting on one side of the title’s grudge match, but it’s equally easy to come away with the exhausted glee of a long, weary theme park outing’s aftermath. Its genre-embedded family bursts through every messy, jam-packed frame like they’re trying to escape (they often are), and in the process create the most energetic, endearing animated comedy so far this year.
And its premise begins so humbly. Filmmaker and animator Katie (Abbi Jacobson) is leaving home for college and, to get there, has to go on a road trip with her family: Rick (Danny McBride), her Luddite outdoorsy dad; Linda (Maya Rudolph), her peacemaking mom; and Aaron (Rianda), her dino-freak little brother. You might be able to guess that Katie and her dad don’t always see eye-to-eye, even when Katie’s eyes aren’t glued to her phone or laptop. That technocriticism, where “screen time” is a dirty phrase and the stick-shifting, cabin-building father figure wants his family to experience the real world, could be as hacky as the twelfth season of a Tim Allen sitcom. The Mitchells vs. the Machines escapes that danger not only through some intentional nuance in its writing, but also some big ol’ anti-nuance: Partway through the trip, the evil tech companies screw up and phone-grown robots decide to shoot all the humans into space. They’re led by a very bitter smartphone (Olivia Colman, feasting) and yes, there’s at least one Maximum Overdrive reference.
While this wild idea is an amusing middle finger to Mark Zuckerberg and all of Silicon Valley through its tech bro screw-up Mark (Eric Andre), it’s also necessarily apocalyptic. This movie needed something this narratively large to support its gloriously kitchen-sink visuals. The Sony film uses some of the same tech that made Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse look so crisp and unique, adding comicky shading to its expressive CG. In fact, once some of the more freaky setpieces take off, you wouldn’t be surprised to see Miles Morales swing in to save the day. The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ spin on the Spidey aesthetic comes from meme and movie-obsessed Katie, whose imagination often breaks through into the real world and whose bizarre, neon and filter-ridden sketchbook doodles ornament the film’s already exciting palette with explosive oddity.
It’s hard to stand out from an already zippy rainbow of a film, but these segments are overloaded past the point of comprehensibility in the best way. In fact, it makes the normal collision of detail, hidden jokes and background information present on screen feel a little cluttered in a pedestrian way. Our eyes are spoiled by the excess, which makes it all feel like a little too much on a first pass. But this is a family-focused animated movie: It was never meant to be viewed just a single time. And those watching it over and over with kids (or those who simply enjoy repicking through its density on their own) will be rewarded for their efforts.
And suffice to say, this is a movie that understands its target audience. The Mitchells vs. the Machines is perhaps the first great animated comedy of the YouTube Poop generation, championing digital DIY creations and off-the-wall dumb (and/or morbid) jokes in equal measure. As the Mitchells are learning to love each other (and also stop those robots as the one family too screwed-up to be captured), the soundtrack shouts out the music of Nyan Cat and the Numa Numa guy; its stunt casting calls in Extremely Online Chrissy Teigen and John Legend. These references and gags might be a little lost on the younger crowd—and some of the dark humor (some hilariously unsettling Furbies) make this, like Gravity Falls, something that works best for bigger kids—but for those in its generational sweet spot, the tonal specificity is a magic dart. Often, you can tell when a moment in a movie will make a great meme. Very rarely does a movie make and include its own diegetic memes as the film goes on.
This unique and savvy style meshes well with The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ wonderfully timed slapstick, crashing and smashing with an unexpected violence, balanced out with one truly dorky pug and plenty of visual asides poking fun at whatever happens to be going on. But that’s not to say the dialogue can’t hang: Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett are the movie’s secret weapons here, playing two robots that end up teaming with the human family.
That family is actually where the movie falters a bit, simply because it’s a dash of repetitive mundanity amidst the chaos. That’s mostly because its family dynamic can feel a bit familiar—in both its characters’ definitions and their arc—and myopic when compared to the depth of its comedy and its visual creativity. The “dad doesn’t get my artsy dreams, but still loves me” thing pops up as frequently and identically as the Appleish bots. While the voice cast is all great—McBride is so compelling that it’s almost rubbing poor Rudolph’s underwritten role in it—their big relationship drama feels more protracted than the robo-war over the film’s 113 minutes.
But these are just things keeping The Mitchells vs. the Machines from being a masterpiece, not from greatness. The cute writing still manages to sell almost everything it brings to the table, including a collegiate farewell that’ll leave you as bleary as a Toy Story if your head’s stopped spinning long enough for the tears to settle. An ultimate compromise on technology’s potential for good (breaking down artistic barriers to entry, keeping in contact with loved ones) and great evil (dependence, corporations having access to your life) is amusingly interwoven into the movie’s blockbuster finale. But none of it would matter without a killer cartoon for it all to live in, and The Mitchells vs. the Machines pushes animation to bold new places that truly respects and understands the younger side of its generational divide.
Directors: Mike Rianda, Jeff Rowe (co-director)
Writers: Mike Rianda, Jeff Rowe
Stars: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Eric Andre, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Conan O’Brien, Mike Rianda, Charlyne Yi, Sasheer Zamata, Olivia Colman
Release Date: April 23, 2021 (theaters); April 30, 2021 (Netflix)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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