Looking back on your childhood, do you ever just feel bad for your parents? Like, do you look back on the movies, shows, or things that you dragged them to see that you were so obsessed with that they probably could barely tolerate? I remember desperately wanting to see The Digimon Movie in theaters and my parents took me to see it. Now I wouldn’t wish that movie on even my mortal enemies (you know who you are). Before I sat down to watch The Mitchells vs The Machines, I had a bad feeling that it would be the modern-day equivalent of that for parents today. Kids love it, parents loathe it.
Based on the trailers, I thought this was going to be hyper-kinetic fluff that would be the equivalent of jingling keys in front of a toddler. A bit harsh, I know, but then I saw that Phil Lord and Chris Miller of Into the Spider-Verse fame were attached to the movie. Then I learned that the director of the movie, Mike Rianda, was one of the creative directors for Gravity Falls. It had the talent to be an amazing film, despite my original misgivings. So I gave it chance.
I couldn’t be happier to admit I was wrong about The Mitchells vs The Machines. This is an excellent movie that I would happily watch another dozen times if I could, I liked it that much.
The Mitchells vs The Machines
Director: Mike Rianda
Release Date: April 30, 2021 (Netflix)
The Mitchells are an incredibly wild and borderline dysfunctional family. The Mitchells daughter, Katie (Abbi Jacobson), wants to move away from the family to go to film school, a lifelong passion of hers, but her father, Rick (Danny Mcbride), is concerned about the two of them having grown distant from each other in recent years. So he organizes a cross-country road trip with Katie, her mom Linda (Maya Rudolph), and Katie’s brother Aaron (Mike Rianda) to drop her off at college, much to Katie’s chagrin. Rick did cancel her plane ticket after all and she fears she’s missing out on all of the fun she’s seeing over social media. And along the way, the robot apocalypse just so happens to occur with the Mitchells being the only surviving humans left to escape from their wrath. You know, as you do.
I know it seems like the whole robot apocalypse thing just kind of comes out of nowhere, and it really does. It’s an insane idea that somehow managed to fit into this family road trip movie, but strangely it feels like it belongs. We’ve all seen numerous family road trips movies where at first the family isn’t bonding and gets on each other’s nerves, yet by the end, they’ve grown to trust one another and learned to see eye to eye despite their differences. All of that is still true, but there are some subtle differences that make The Mitchells vs The Machines stand out.
Despite all of the characters having wildly different backgrounds and personalities, it would have been all too easy to make at least one of the characters unlikeable for the sake of conflict. I could have easily imagined a movie where Rick, a technology adverse outdoorsman who knows next to nothing about the internet, would have easily been portrayed as being in the wrong and completely out of touch with his daughter’s needs, but he never comes across that way. Every member of the Mitchell family has their own quirks but the film never frames one of them as always being right or always being wrong. Yes, they’re super exaggerated maniacs at times, but they feel like people with actual, real-world conflicts.
Speaking of super exaggerated, the humor and animation are absolutely perfect for what this movie is aiming for. The jokes come in all shapes and sizes with some simply perfect creative decisions that make me think Rianda is some kind of mad genius. It’s hard to make the eradication of the human race funny, but the tone and pacing of the film had me actually laughing. And I don’t mean just a simple nose air blow or chuckle. No, I was actively laughing and even crying from laughter at times. I was worried in the first scene that we were just going to get meme humor the entire film, which would have made this some special form of torture like The Digimon Movie, but there’s enough variety here where I never knew what to expect next.
From robots contemplating the meaning of death, to mental breakdowns over anatomically incorrect dinosaurs, to simple dog jokes, if there’s a joke that doesn’t land for you, chances are one is going to come along in a few seconds that will. There is a genuine risk to be worried about when a movie just goes hog wild with its jokes since it increases the chances that some of the jokes won’t land, and there are some cases of that here. Linda has a running joke where she’s jealous of her neighbors being absolutely perfect but the payoff doesn’t really amount to a whole lot. But it’s a testament to the quality of the script that I like as many jokes and setpieces that I do.
The animation plays a huge role in that since so many of the characters have very creative designs to them that animate wonderfully. These are insanely expressive characters whose range of emotions is always easy to discern and feel stretchy in all of the right ways. There are definitely instances where character models can feel too rigid in other animated movies, but there’s a nice sense of flow with how they all move here, even if the character in question is a robot.
Oh yeah, I keep dodging around the whole robot apocalypse thing. So another element that The Mitchells vs The Machines loves to comment on is society and our overreliance on technology and its interference with our ability to form genuine relationships. The villain of the film, an AI very reminiscent of Siri named PAL (Olivia Colman), starts her robot uprising from a belief that humans don’t care for one another and will use and manipulate anyone and anything to get their way without showing any compassion towards them in the process. She demonstrates this by treating the oblivious and self-centered CEO of PAL Labs like a phone in a series of physical gags that make you feel very concerned in case your cell phone actually does decide to kill you.
There are a lot of critical commentaries like this that offer up some pretty justified insight into the way we use phones, computers, the internet, etc. But that dynamic relationship is best showcased in the moments where the family is able to just drive on the road together. Katie lives through her camera, filming and making movies to process her own feelings as well as to capture moments that matter to her for years to come, while Rick prefers to make these memories in the moment and enjoy things as they come to him. No one approach is more right than the other and the film eventually settles on a theme where technology is vital to our everyday lives but it shouldn’t define it, which is a great message to give to kids who have grown up surrounded by technology and social media.
For a madcap comedy that dials it to 11 most of the time (I will never look at Furbies the same way again), there are enough pauses in the action for the audience to breathe and take in some of the more emotionally poignant moments. Too much media aimed at children fail to realize that stories shouldn’t be relentlessly barreling to the credits because that can just exhaust viewers. To assuage one of my earlier fears, this is not dangling your keys in front of a toddler. This isn’t mindless animation and entertainment without substance. This is a story that FEELS like it’s worth telling, and it’s one hell of a good one.
The one major caveat that I would give is that if you’re not a fan of the kind of humor that the movie is going for, then you’re almost certainly not going to enjoy this movie as much as I did. Comedy in a kid’s film is very difficult to get right, and that’s before you factor in your own personal tastes in humor. I like the kind of jokes that The Mitchells vs The Machines dishes out, so of course I would love it, but if you don’t like watching robots telling humans that they will be ejected into the dark vacuum of space where they will die a slow and agonizing death, but the humans are okay with it because at least there’s free wifi, then I don’t know what to tell you.
The story is great, and nearly everything about The Mitchells vs The Machines is, dare I say, phenomenal. The animation is lively, the humor is wild and eccentric, and it’s all wrapped in a package that actually has something to say and teaches applicable and valuable lessons about family and technology. If I’m being perfectly honest here, I think I can safely say I loved this movie and will be recommending it to anyone I meet for the next couple of months. Families, couples, single people, everyone should watch this film. Don’t let this get swallowed up by the glut of content released by Netflix. Give this movie a shot and I guarantee you will be incredibly satisfied and thrilled.