Lord and Miller are names synonymous with comedy and animation, but they also have a track record of crafting excellent on-screen fathers.
Film duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are names now synonymous with wonderfully offbeat family films. In the last 10 years they’ve had numerous hits and in some ways have quietly revolutionised the animation industry with successes like The LEGO Movie and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse.
With their latest hit The Mitchells Vs The Machines also taking the world by storm (the pair did not write or direct, but did produce the film) I couldn’t help but think about the other element they were slowly changing: the portrayal of fathers in mainstream media.
Fiction has a habit of putting across fathers in family movies as stern, or authoritarian. But what Lord and Miller have done is put across fathers as loving, nurturing caregivers – even if they’re not always able to verbalise it.
Looking at some of their animated films, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse and new release The Mitchells Vs The Machines, it’s hard not to draw links between the three. On the surface, none of these films are about the protagonists father. Flint Lockwood in Cloudy is a wild creative genius. Miles Morales and Katie Mitchell are both awkward teens with a gift.
But Lord, Miller and their creative teams evolve these stories to not just good vs evil, man vs food/supervillain/machine but into heartfelt coming of age stories centred around a child and father relationship. These aren’t just stories about heroes saving the day. They’re stories of growing up and finding acceptance in your family.
One of the core stories at the heart of Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs is Flint’s strained relationship with his father. The pair might as well be talking different languages, as a young Flint tells us he doesn’t understand fishing metaphors. But throughout the film, it’s made clear that while his father Tim is apprehensive towards Flint’s machines and the new mysterious food from the sky, it’s the technology he fears, not his son. When discussing the arc on the directors commentary Lord and Miller commented on the importance of the storyline. “[It was] hard to make it clear that he loves his son, he’s just bad at expressing it. He’s not just a jerk, he really wants to bond with his son.”
One of the ways they expressed this is shown through Tim adding ‘and son’s’ to the front of his bait and tackle shop. His disinterest in Flint’s inventions is not because he thinks Flint is a failure, he just wants to be closer to his son and this is the only way he knows how to express it, by sharing his life’s work with his son.
When talking to IndieWire in 2017, Lord and Miller discussed that the storyline between the pair wasn’t something they initially wanted to include. “The reason why it’s overused is because it’s really elemental,” Miller says. “Parent-child relationships are an experience that everyone has, that’s happened throughout human history.” Lord adds, “One of the things that has proven true in our career is that even if you take something that’s as straightforward and classic as a father-son story, you can express it in a way that’s totally unique to you.”
Similarly enough, in their Oscar winning film Spider-man: Into The Spider-Verse, one of the most touching moments of the film, a doorway conversation between our hero Miles and his father Jefferson, initially wasn’t a part of the movie.
The scene in question acts as the emotional crux of the film. Having lost his uncle and been sidelined by the other Spideys for his own safety, Miles is webbed to a chair when his father knocks on the door to talk. Unable to answer, the conversation plays out beautifully as Jefferson lets his son know that he’ll always be there, and is waiting whenever Miles is ready to talk. Visually we see each character in one third of their respective shot, but as the one-sided conversation continues, they move together in to the middle of their frames, eventually ending on a split screen with only the door separating their connection.
This scene and conversation was originally intended for Aunt May. She was to deliver Miles the inspirational talk he needed to take the leap. Talking on the Blu-ray commentary track, the creators discussed the importance of these little moments throughout the film. “The intimacy between the characters is what makes you care. And any time you don’t feel it you disengage.”
It’s through this storyline and relationship that we see the truth of the film and Miles’ transformation arc. Miles is not transformed by the spider bite. He’s not transformed through his relationship with the other Spider-men. He’s transformed through the love and acceptance of his father. Discussing the films ending, the creators stressed this importance. “No matter what, we have to get to the hug [at the end of the film]. Ultimately the thing that makes [the film] work are the relationships, the small stuff.”
Within The Mitchells Vs The Machines, the fractured relationship between our lead Katie and her father Rick is pushed even further. Not just a minor obstacle like Tim and Jefferson, Rick is at many times in the film Katie’s antagonist. He stands in the way of her future and destiny, albeit accidentally.
The film sees Katie desperate to leave for college. A film major, she lives her life through her computer screen, making short films and video chatting with future classmates. Rick is a man of the woods who once dreamt of a life lived amongst nature. Like Jefferson, he’s scared for his child and the world they live in. Like Tim, he’s a technophobe and doesn’t understand the language his child speaks. When the family end up on an ill-thought-out road-trip, it forces the pair to confront the rift that has grown between them. Katie’s mother and brother desperately try to remind Katie how much love Rick has for her and also try to coach Rick in to understanding his daughter.
The use of old technology is wonderful, as both Rick and Katie watch old home movies emphasising the powerful bond the pair once had. It highlights that though things change and evolve, the true things always remain. A scene in the films final act that sees Rick and Katie join together to fight the robot army that surrounds them calls back to some of these earlier home video clips and displays the films heart for all to see.
Within the films, Lord and Miller are able to portray that these fathers aren’t judging their child’s pursuits, it’s not that they don’t want to have a positive relationship. The fathers are fearful. Fearful of change, of losing their child, of them growing up and never having the old relationship.
Films have often told us that when a child grows up, they have to leave their parents. Ariel stays on land, Belle lives in the castle forever. Lord, Miller and the whole team at Sony are showing us the far greater and more important truth – that just because a child becomes an adult, it doesn’t means they stop being someone’s kid. The love and care of a father doesn’t disappear, even though the child they once knew might have evolved in front of them, that bond is unconditional.
These films teach us to take the time to listen. To hear beyond the ‘no’ and the ‘I’m busy’. That even when they don’t know how to say it, our Dads are proud. That even when we can’t be with them, they will love us, unconditionally. Hug your dad a little closer if you can tonight, it doesn’t need to take a monkey thought translator to say you care.
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