The new animated film The Mitchells Vs The Machines is the best family movie in some time – and we’ve been looking at just why it works so well.
Is that a burnt orange 1993 station wagon?
From the studio who brought you Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and The Emoji Movie (okay, maybe let’s not dwell on The Emoji Movie) comes an absolute gem of an animated movie, all about family ties, finding who you are and humanity’s reliance on AI technology biting us on the backside (as I listen to the radio station I asked my branded smart speaker to play for me because I’m too lazy to turn the radio on and off with a button).
Just the names Phil Lord and Christopher Miller should be enough to wet your whistle with this one. Following The Lego Movie, 21 & 22 Jump Street and, of course, the Oscar winning Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. They produce this one, co-written by Jeff Rowe and Mike Rianda and directed by Rianda in his directorial debut.
Wholly deserving of, but denied a full cinema release due to COVID-19, The Mitchells Vs The Machines (previously titled Connected) had its debut on Netflix a week or two back after the streaming giant purchased the distribution rights from Sony. The irony of a movie about screen addiction and the global domination of internet corporations from Sony being screened by Netflix. one of the biggest global streaming services in the world, is not lost.
It goes without saying that this is one of the most refreshing and terrific animated movies of recent years and if you haven’t yet seen it, grab your nearest device and stream it now though.
The plot is fairly simple. Road trip movies are not a new thing, nor are dysfunctional families. Being honest, cinema is full of science fiction based on artificial intelligence becoming sentient and turning on humanity too, whether in self-defence or having antagonistic motives. Terminator had Skynet, 2001: A Space Odyssey had HAL9000 and The Mitchells Vs The Machines has PAL (voiced superbly by Olivia Colman). PAL powers phones, tablets, PCs and washing machines, as well as a side-splitting cameo from a very famous toy brand. There’s a definite I, Robot inspired look to the lorry loads of PAL-powered robots, as well as the inevitable uprising, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Animation is often bypassed as being the unloved cousin of live action. I’d argue that animation is a more important filming style because of how much its underappreciated. It’s often mislabelled a genre and also mistakenly underrated as just a medium for children. The Mitchells Vs The Machines is the latest in a long line of animated movies that proves animation is not only just as valuable as live-action, but that you should never write off animated films as just for the small humans. Great animated movies appeal to both children and adults in equal measure.
The Mitchells Vs The Machines is the story then of Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson), a young woman with big dreams. She’s always felt a little bit different; she’s creative, she expresses herself by making films in her spare time starring her dog which she posts on YouTube, and she dreams of going to film school. Her previous close relationship with her father is strained because as she’s growing up, they’re growing further apart. Her mother just wants everyone to get along. Her little brother just doesn’t want her to leave. All baby birds, however, need to fly the nest, and Katie has found her ticket to film school, her future and a bunch of like-minded friends who she deems “her people”.
Dads are blessed with infinite misplaced wisdom, and Rick Mitchell (Danny McBride), frustrated at his family’s obsession with technology, isolates his daughter further by accidentally breaking her laptop. To apologise, he cancels her plane ticket to college, insisting that what they need is a good old family road trip to bond. Katie is, of course, mortified. Fierce matriarch Linda (an always excellent Maya Rudolph) is the eternal optimist, and constantly trying to keep her husband and daughter from bickering and just wants a good family photograph. She’s ably supported by her “sweet boy”, youngest child Aaron (voiced by the director, Mike Rianda), who in a trope-defying move, is best friends with his big sister (Raptor bash!), and has an unrivalled passion for dinosaurs.
Rounding out the family is pug Monchi (Dog? Pig? Loaf of bread?), in a surprising twist voiced by an actual dog, internet celebrity pooch Doug the Pug. Doug’s Instagram account has 3.8 million followers more than the rest of us.
Their road trip is cut short when, while at a dinosaur themed road stop café in Kansas, they witness a robot invasion, brought on by PAL, a bitter obsolete AI. Rejected by her creator Mark Bowman, clearly not based on any real life technology entrepreneur we know, PAL takes over his friendly service droids and makes plans for world domination.
Unlike their glamorous neighbours the Poseys, the Mitchells can’t take a decent photo, don’t have a perfect existence and cannot gracefully escape from the impending robot apocalypse. They can, however, do it disgracefully. These characters are flawed, fallible, clumsy, and normal. It’s a relatable family unit that you can believe in, warts and all.
“It’s almost like stealing people’s data and giving it to a hyper-intelligent AI as part of an unregulated tech monopoly was a bad thing?!”
What’s not disgraceful is the level of detail in every single frame. This is the studio that brought us Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse; an achievement in animation technology that has yet to be surpassed, even by the likes of Disney or Pixar. The Mitchells Vs The Machines is, in many ways, inspired by Into the Spider-Verse. Instead of being based on comic book strips, it’s based on hand-drawn cel animation. Backgrounds are designed to look hand-drawn, slightly blurred; Into The Spider-Verse did similar to focus your eye on the sharpness of the images around it. It utilised brand-new animation techniques in hand-painted textures, as well as morphing characters into different shapes for the Stealthbots.
Bottom line here: this movie is stunningly beautiful. It juxtaposes the hand-drawn aesthetic of the Mitchell family to the clean, crisp sheen of the PAL robots, in many ways depicting the simple, rustic life Rick and Linda left behind all those years ago to be drawn into the blue-lit screens of modern day life.
While Disney and Pixar seems to be relying on sequels and recycling animation styles, Sony Pictures Animation feesl innovative, bold and daring. It doesn’t need to prove it’s the CG animation studio to watch: it simply is.
It’s not enough for an animated movie to look good, of course. With the constant scrutiny of ‘it’s just for kids’ looming over its shoulders, it needs to be good. Luckily, The Mitchells Vs The Machines is powered by a stellar voice cast and an incredibly witty script.
While much of the humour is visual, and there’s a lot of humour to go around, so much of the emotional core of this movie is all about embracing your weirdness and finding your family; whether that’s reconnecting with your actual family or finding a new one who understands you. The fact the lead character is LGBTQ is surely not a coincidence, but while on first watch it’s merely a throwaway line at the end of the movie, a second watch makes slightly more obvious. It’s a remarkably subtle form of progressive representation that never feels tacked on.
There are tons of pop culture Easter Eggs, which makes complete sense in a movie that’s about Katie, a budding future Celine Sciamma or Greta Gerwig. It pays homage to Star Wars, Kill Bill, Mad Max, Dawn Of The Dead and Ghostbusters amongst others. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that singing Live Your Life by T.I ft Rihanna while fighting sentient robots trying to capture all of humanity is a great way to prove how much you love your family. Maybe, as humanity, we can learn to not be too reliant on technology going forward?
Admittedly though, I’m writing this on a laptop, powered by the biggest OS in the world, using the wi-fito post it to a website you also need wi-fi to view it with. I fear we’ve learned nothing about society’s reliance on AI, but The Mitchells Vs The Machines also contains a powerful message of the power of the next generation, and what they can achieve without us slightly-older-but-still-relevant-honest people involved.
Let the dark harvest begin…
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