Home Film ‘The Mitchells vs. The Machines’ Review – Visually Inspired and Full of Heart

‘The Mitchells vs. The Machines’ Review – Visually Inspired and Full of Heart

by Chris St Lawrence
The family cast of the The Mitchells vs. The Machines voiced by Danny McBride, Abbi Jacobson, Maya Rudolph, and Mike Rianda on Netflix.

From director Michael Rianda and producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is the most imaginative, visually inspired film of recent memory. This feast fit for the eyes combines every possible medium in a dazzling spectacle, a masterfully crafted hodge-podge of art styles, colors, and characters that deserves to be seen on the largest screen possible. Still, at its heart lies an emotional core as bombastically compelling as its vast assortment of flashy animated quirks and gags.

Many will be surprised at the adept grace with which The Mitchells vs. The Machines explores its themes of technology and togetherness, walking a nuanced line of understanding that most other films fail to fully develop – falling into a trap of cliched moralizing. Don’t be mistaken, though – this film boasts sharp precision, delivering targeted quips and hard-hitting condemnations left and right at deserving subjects. Against all odds, Sony Pictures Animation and Netflix’s The Mitchells vs. The Machines manages to hit all the right notes and strike a pitch-perfect balance that is sure to draw attention from a wide diversity of audiences en masse.

Perhaps the biggest draw for moviegoers will be the producers behind the film – names associated with massively popular films like Into The Spider-Verse and The LEGO Movie. If it’s the signature sensibilities of Lord and Miller that you’re craving, there’s no shortage here; The Mitchells vs. The Machines oozes with charismatic charm and clever storytelling, taking a preposterously fantastic narrative and injecting a rock-solid familial parable into its center.

The Mitchell family next to futuristic Siri-esque robot assistants as seen in The Mitchells vs. The Machines.
‘The Mitchells vs. The Machines’ courtesy of Netflix

Aside from its action-adventure plotline following the technological uprising of futuristic Siri-esque robot assistants created by PAL Labs founder Dr. Mark Bowman (Eric Andre), the film is very much about the connective tissue between each of the Mitchells. When her parents insist on driving Katie, played by Abbi Jacobson (Broad City, Bojack Horseman), across the country to film school in California, their relationships are put to the test. 

The concept of a movie-making protagonist is one that few films could pull off as effortlessly as The Mitchells does, avoiding the cliche, lazy pop culture references that do nothing to promote interesting character growth and only act as a writer/director-insert. Instead, writers Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe embrace Katie as a cinemaholic, imposing her technology-based aspirations as an emotional catalyst for her father Rick, voiced by Danny McBride (Vice Principals). His preference for the tangible and tactile puts him at constant odds with his daughter, who seems inseparable from the make-believe worlds enabled by her camcorder, phone, or laptop.

The story feels personal and heartfelt, and even when played for laughs, is never shown in an entirely condescending light. The parental concerns are genuine and never ill-intentioned, and the film thankfully understands this. Though we side with Katie, understanding the personal importance of her film school future, we never lose an empathetic sight of Rick’s inner conflict – even when his actions go wrong.

Though appropriately caricatured to fit this colorful world, each of the Mitchells feels like the shadow of a real person with genuine feelings, thoughts, and aspirations. Real people make fallible decisions, and things don’t always work out – such is true for The Mitchells vs. The Machines, which plays a number of emotional beats to subversive effect. Just when you think that Katie or Rick would gain a moral high ground above the other, the film rescinds any premature advocacy and instead opts for a more layered take on technology, connectedness, and digital culture.

Katie Mitchell in a stunning art background showing her acceptance to film school as seen in The Mitchells vs. The Machines.
‘The Mitchells vs. The Machines’ courtesy of Netflix

Rianda, who also voices Katie’s younger brother Aaron aside from directing, noticeably brings his unique sense of comedic timing and delivery, imbuing a remarkably similar energy to that of his contributions to Gravity Falls. With a Gideon-style “razzle dazzle,” there are moments where Aaron could fit seamlessly at the Mystery Shack or Waddles could swap places with the Mitchells’ adorably bug-eyed pet pug Monchi. Even Katie’s over-the-top aesthetic seems reminiscent of Mabel Pines’s obsession with glitter, sequins, and bedazzling.

Interestingly, a lot of the film seems to pay homage to the creative team’s past works. Several major plot points seem vaguely similar to those found in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, The LEGO Movie, or Into The Spider-Verse. That is not to say the whole film feels derivative, as it evokes an entirely new variant of feel-goodness from any of the aforementioned titles, leveraging familiar plot structures to tell a new emotional story. In addition, inventive set pieces help differentiate The Mitchells vs. The Machines from its predecessors, bringing fictional objects and recognizable real-world brands into creatively inspired, high stake thrills. Oh, and dinosaurs, too.

From the release of the earliest trailer, The Mitchells vs. The Machines set itself apart from the crowd with its distinct visual style, solidifying Sony Pictures Animation as a major epicenter in innovative animation. Finding a happy medium between traditional CGI and hand-drawn animation that feels akin to Spider-Verse while still remaining patently removed, The Mitchells will surely strike viewers with a sense of wonder and awe, if not outright sensory overload. For some, the onslaught of information on screen may be off putting; a slurry of two-dimensional accents, flashy neon effects, and quick cutaways build up a highly stylized visual vernacular.

Assuming your tastes do not clash with such bold flashiness, the eye candy does not stop there. Live-action inserts, sock puppet green screen gags, and pseudo-paper-cutout style transitions are but a few of the more conspicuous staples of Lindsey Olivares’ striking production design. More understated, perhaps, is the plasticine-like appearance of the characters’ hair or the gorgeously elegant, glossy backgrounds that look slathered with oil pastels or watercolor paints. These simple elements of visual flair help The Mitchells vs. The Machines stray away from the photorealistic tendencies of many recent animated films and stand out amongst the competition – a true testament to the creative minds of those behind it.

The Mitchell family losing their minds inside of their bandwagon with text that reads Worst Family of All Time as seen in The Mitchells vs. The Machines.
Yes, this is a real frame from the movie

While sexuality isn’t exactly at the focus of The Mitchells vs. The Machines, it is a driving factor in Katie’s desire to get to the aptly named California College of Film. In some ways, the film seems to disregard this motivation as Rick course-corrects conversations about school (including the people Katie has met and is eager to meet there) to those of more Rick-friendly topics. While this makes for believable interactions between an eager college student and her overprotective father, it could easily be interpreted as a symptom of persistent heteronormativity in family animation – especially when Rick’s ignorant interruptions are played for laughs.

To view these moments in a well-intentioned light, however, may find audiences exposed to a level of truth – the frustrating reality of unintentional ignorance from even those closest to you. Like many of their real-world counterparts, the Mitchells are a dysfunctional family, and it’s easy to see where things often get lost in translation. Of course, this is a discussion to be had by those who have experienced such difficult relationships, but there is reason enough to believe that, like in many other parts of the film, some will see themselves reflected in Katie’s journey of self-discovery.

As The Mitchells vs. The Machines debuts on Netflix, one cannot help but think of a parallel reality where we saw it hit the big screen, it’s technicolor mixed media presentation illuminating an entire auditorium as audiences sit side-by-side to appreciate what would surely have been a crowd-pleasing matinée. On one hand, it’s a shame that we do not live in that reality – that we can’t experience the grotesque splendor of Monchi the pug on a forty-foot screen with popcorn in hand – but some things just work out. As the world slowly recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, at least we can relax and enjoy a night “at the movies” at home, watching The Mitchells vs. The Machines with those whom we were meant to: our families.

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

The Mitchells vs. The Machines premieres on Netflix April 30!

Follow writer Chris St. Lawrence on Twitter: @ey2studios

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