Like a mash-up of an ‘80s family road comedy like “Vacation” and the visions of a tech apocalypse foretold in films like “The Terminator,” Netflix’s “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is a lot of nostalgic fun but told in a modern style. It sometimes succumbs to that animated problem of choosing hyperactivity over all other storytelling options, but it’s also a whip-smart action film, a movie with nearly “Fury Road”-esque momentum in its asking of the question, “What if the only family that could save the world was as dysfunctional as yours?” Threaded with clever commentary on our reliance on tech and featuring some incredibly strong design work, this is a pleasant surprise for families looking for something new this season, and one of the more purely enjoyable Netflix animated films in a while.
Once called “Connected” (neither title is great), this Sony Pictures Animation project was a casualty of the pandemic, originally scheduled for release last fall before a title change and a shuffle off to the King of the Streamers. Directed by Michael Rianda, and written by Rianda and Jeff Rowe, “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” is produced by Phil Lord & Chris Miller and is unmistakably creatively inspired by their work on “The Lego Movie” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse.” Like the former, it is loaded with jokes and gags with so many visual flights of fancy happening at any given moment that it takes multiple rewatches to catch them all. The creative influence of “Spider-verse” is even more essential to this project’s success—just as that Oscar-winning modern animated classic used comic and street art as a visual inspiration, this project uses viral and YouTube culture not just in its storytelling but in its design. The result is one of the most visually vibrant animated films since, well, “Spider-verse.”
Like a lot of teens, the generation gap between Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) and her father Rick (Danny McBride) has been widened by technology. She has a creative spirit that has led to directing viral YouTube videos, most of them starring her chunky pug Monchi in a series called “Dog Cop”; dad has no idea how to use a computer or smartphone to even watch the videos that have kind of made his daughter a star. The personality divide between Katie and her dad feels even wider as she’s planning to go off to film school to pursue her dreams, and he’s of a generation that doesn’t really know how to express his feelings other than through gifts like a perfect screwdriver. In an effort to unite them one more time before she leaves, Rick decides that the Mitchells—including mom Linda (Maya Rudolph), Katie’s brother Aaron (Rianda), and Monchi—should drive Katie to school for a last family road trip. It just happens to come on the same day that the machines take over the world.
While the Mitchells are navigating family drama, tech giant Mark Bowman (Eric Andre) introduces the world to the next step in the tech evolution, a new version of PAL, this universe’s version of the iPhone or iPad. Imagine if your iTechnology like Siri or Alexa was included in a literal robot helper. It doesn’t go well because the original PAL virtual assistant (playfully voiced by Olivia Colman) resents being replaced by the new model and so she turns all of the technology on the planet against its human owners, imprisoning them and planning their replacement. Only the Mitchells survive the robot apocalypse, and only the Mitchells can stop PAL from destroying the human race.
Much like on other Lord/Miller projects, the voice cast of “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is a notable strength. Jacobson doesn’t overplay ‘awkward teen,’ imbuing Katie with confidence instead of clichés, and McBride similarly takes the ’emotionally reserved dad’ role that has been done to death in family entertainment and makes it heartfelt. There are also incredibly fun vocal performances throughout the supporting cast, including Fred Armisen & Beck Bennett as a pair of robots who end up allies of the Mitchells, Chrissy Teigen & John Legend as the perfect parents who live next door, and, believe it or not, Blake Griffin and Conan O’Brien.
However, the greatest strength of “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is its design. A blend of strong character lines that look hand-drawn give the film the feel almost of a comic book in motion, but the filmmakers have embedded the piece with enough easter eggs for YouTube culture that it feels like not just a film about Katie but the movie this young film school student would have made herself. It’s constantly visually inspired and creative, even if it has a tendency to get almost too cluttered, especially in its second half. Still, it’s never once visually boring, for parents or their more net-savvy children.
The people behind “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” are an undeniably talented crew (resumes here also include the truly fun “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” movies and the phenomenal “Gravity Falls”) and that talent comes through in the final product. There are times when I wished the film would calm down a little bit—and it’s a tad too long at around 110 minutes—but these are minor complaints overall. The one thing that probably matters the most to families considering watching it together? Before it was even over, my kids were already talking about when they could see it again.
Premieres on Netflix on April 30th.