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The Mitchells vs The Machines ★★★★★



Director: Michael Rianda

Starring: Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Abbi Jacobsen, Olivia Colman, Eric André

Released: April 30th 2021 (Netflix)

Brought to us by maverick production duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The LEGO Movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), and directed and written by Gravity Fallsalumnus Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe, The Mitchells vs The Machines marks the next step in Sony Pictures Animation’s march to Western animation domination. And if our animated movie overlords are committed to delivering films as fresh, vibrant, boundary-breaking, and medium-pushing as this robot apocalypse romp, then all hail our new kings!

Rianda and Rowe’s feature directorial debut centres around the Mitchell family, a dysfunctional bunch comprising of Danny McBride’s warmly voiced technophobe dad Rick, Insta-envious mom Linda, voiced by an appropriately animated Maya Rudolph, dino-mad and girl-shy son Aaron (Rianda himself, who plays pubescent adolescent unnervingly well), and aspiring filmmaker and free-spirited daughter Katie, who Abbi Jacobsen brings to life with as much spirit and colour as the animation itself. It feels noteworthy to say here that Katie’s character is explicitly queer-coded. Still, her sexuality is met with a refreshing matter-of-factness that has evaded other studios’ crobarred in attempts at LGBTQ+ representation.

Whilst Katie spends her time making hilarious ‘Dog Cop’ short films with boss-eyed family pug Monchi (voiced by IG star ‘Doug the Pug’), carpenter dad Rick is always ready with an excuse not to indulge her as the clock ticks down to her moving cross-country to attend film school. Early on, we see the Mitchells’ dysfunction as they sit down to a proverbial last supper, where Katie has prepared a goodbye short film. Rick starts the meal by asking his family to put down their phones for a few seconds to enjoy each others’ company, which proves gruelling. He ends it by breaking Katie’s laptop and her heart.

Whilst the film is called The Mitchells vs The Machines, not without good reason, mind you, it works most poignantly and powerfully when seen as an intimate exploration of the father-daughter relationship at its core. In the first of many neatly observed mirroring scenes within the film, we see Katie in her bedroom and Rick in the kitchen after their bust-up, both anguishing at how the other doesn’t understand them. While Rick wistfully watches old home videos, clinging to techless times where he and his daughter were close to each other, Katie yearns for her dad to support her dreams and see that they can bond through the shared screen of her films. Ultimately, it’s not technology Rick’s scared of however, it’s his little girl growing up and moving away. In a last-ditch attempt to make amends for his heavy-handed dinner antics and bring the Mitchells back together, the following day, Rick does what any good dad would and cancels Katie’s college flights to force her on a week-long road trip in the family’s burnt-out car.

Unbeknownst to the Mitchells, however, over in Silicon Valley – beautifully animated as a sort of sleek, soulless modern Moria – tech-bro Mark (Eric André) is about to cause a world-threatening robot apocalypse. Founder of Apple-alike AI and smartphone giants PAL, Mark has decided to ditch his first creation, voiced by the ever-incredible Olivia Colman, in favour of creating fully-fledged robot servants to serve slobbish humans’ every whim. What he doesn’t count on, however, is Colman’s original PAL being upset at her callous dismissal – which she is. And so, as Mark presents his creation to the world, she triggers millions of PAL robots to rise up and begin enslaving humanity in glowy green cubes. And thus, with people – pretty willingly if truth be told – marching towards their imprisoned fate at the faintest whiff of free Wi-Fi, the stage is set for the Mitchells to take on the machines in a battle for Earth. BOOM!

Utilising a stunning mixture of hyper-stylised 3D animation, 2D doodles that act like thought-bubbles and emote like comic book panels – Katie’s strongest emotional impulses and reactions spill out of her in rainbows and hearts, and volcanic eruptions that words cannot adequately convey – and infrequent but exquisitely deployed viral clips from “the real world”, The Mitchells vs The Machines captures the same sense of creative explosion that made Into the Spider-Verse the boldest and freshest animated film of the 21st century to date. Rianda and Rowe’s film is bursting at the seams with ideas, and our excitement comes from the sense of watching pure creative freedom at work. Wanna throw a screaming gibbon clip in randomly? Sure! Wanna slap a cat-filter on everyone’s faces? Yes please! Wanna cult up Furbies and possess homeware appliances in an extended homage to George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead that feels like a long-lost Gravity Falls episode you never knew you needed? You know what to do! And just for good measure, when the film does play quieter and more introspective, we’re given moments like a wave of distant cuboid green prisons floating in the sky like the aurora borealis, showing how tech and nature have become inextricably linked.

Unencumbered by a one-size-fits-all house style and wholly committed to a relentless, rip-roaring experience that gets viewers from A to B to Z in a way that makes 100 minutes feel like 10, Rianda, Rowe, and the animators over at Sony Pictures Animation show in their craft what they seek to teach us with their characters – being yourself, and embracing all the possibilities that lay before you, is the surest and truest route to joy and fulfilment. For the Mitchells, that means embracing the perfect screwdriver with the same brio as the latest and greatest technological innovations, but it also means a father letting his daughter fly the nest because a cage creates not a home.

As touched upon, this film plays fast and loose with its filmic influences. From audiovisual gags invoking Romero, The Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kill Bill, and I, Robot, to stylistic nods to Edgar Wright and narrative inferences of The Incredibles, Rowe and Rianda use protagonist Katie’s passion for film as a conduit for their own, making our experience all the better for it. But The Mitchells vs The Machines shines most brightly in its own idiosyncratic cinematic inventions. The comic duo of neurotic robots Deborahbot 5000 and Eric (Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett respectively) is inspired, with the pair’s introduction as they try to convince the Mitchells they’re human, guaranteeing genuine belly laughter. Elsewhere, scenes of the apocalypse unfolding around the world and humanity’s descent into disorder when the plug is pulled on the internet gives us a wicked look at what the end times would actually look like in the present day – apparently, it’s a wild-eyed woman begging people to take a photo of her dinner and a man on the cusp of making sacrifices to a deified router.

With a starry array of brilliant voice actors, a slew of great needle drops and musical cues, and a core dissection of intergenerational misunderstanding and our quickness to scapegoat tech as the root of all of society’s ills, The Mitchells vs The Machines knows exactly what it wants to say and – in breathless, delightful fashion – finds a multitude of ways to say it. Suffusing mixed media to authentically embrace meme culture and the specific quirks and nuances of this Internet Age whilst telling a timeless story about family and coming-of-age, this high-tech, tongue-in-cheek, heart-on-sleeve animation encourages us to embrace the future by stepping into it together. Moving forward doesn’t always mean leaving behind, and as a father-to-be already imagining the day my little girl is all grown up, that revelation is the one which I believe many will carry with them after watching this film. That, and robots’ inability to differentiate between pugs and bread.

A simple guy. Loves film. Watches film. Writes about film. Talks about film. Then the cycle repeats.

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