Every once in a while, and not often enough, a movie comes along to remind adults what it’s like to sit back and get wrapped up in the pure wonder of animation. “To feel like a kid again” doesn’t really do the thought justice, as it’s more about refreshing a true excitement and energy behind movies that can inspire the next generation to reach even higher with their art. Sony Pictures Animation pulled this off not too long ago with the triumphant Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse under Phil Lord and Chris Miller as producers, and as fate would allow it, they’ve done it again with their dazzling and inventive new feature on Netflix, The Mitchells vs. the Machines.
Part road-trip family comedy and part sci-fi disaster romp, The Mitchells vs. the Machines blends the horrors of our tech-obsessed society running amok with a mostly familiar story about a father and daughter who struggle to see eye-to-eye. Where it stands out in this sea of roads well-traveled is in its pure, unrelenting devotion to present audiences with something they’ve never really seen before. Either visually through a frantic, social-media-birthed cartoon universe that makes some generic CG-animated properties look like they were made in the Flintstones era, or thematically through an internet-literate language of memes and stylistic gags that can actually go toe-to-toe with what the “kids” are into these days. It may not always win out, but at least it’s competing in the same IP address. That might have something to do with Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe’s previous work on Gravity Falls, as Rianda serves as director and co-screenwriter alongside Rowe.
The Mitchells are, or maybe aren’t, your typical midwestern family. The eldest daughter, Katie (Abbi Jacobson) dreams of one day becoming a filmmaker, and her “weird” videos awards her an opportunity to attend a film school in California. Katie’s dad, the outdoorsy, schlubby Rick (Danny McBride) worries that Katie’s career choice might limit her overall opportunities in life, mostly because he doesn’t really understand her art and what people might like about it. More broadly, he frets over how technology has crept into his family’s daily interactions, as everyone stares away at screens instead of engaging with one another.
Taking matters into his own hands, Rick pushes the family into driving Katie all the way to college in their “burnt orange 1993 station wagon,” hoping like most dads do that a road trip will surely solve all their problems. Along for the ride is Katie’s mom, the enigmatic and carefree Linda (Maya Rudolph), and her dinosaur-obsessed younger brother, Aaron (Mike Rianda). While they’re both extremely entertaining and memorable characters in their own right, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is definitely more about the relationship between Katie and Rick, and that keen focus on their dynamic is a big reason why a lot of people will find Pixar-sized tears by the end of this one.
Of course, family drama isn’t all there is to see, here. While the film certainly hits a pretty light and amusing groove as a high-energy road trip movie with its own fair share of hi-jinks, a darker robot apocalypse creeps onto the horizon. Literally. The film detours into an ambitious action movie of sorts, featuring a slew of creatives set pieces, the most notable including a war of appliances inside a shopping mall that re-imagines some of the best moments of The LEGO Movie. This aspect of the plot also brings in a lot of extra comedic talent from Eric Andre, Olivia Colman, and Conan O’Brien, who don’t really hog the spotlight from the Mitchells themselves, but they do steal their own fair share of scenes when appropriate.
As a story about fathers and daughters, Mitchells goes through the expected motions, albeit with one or two red herrings to keep things at least a little interesting and subversive. Though some families might find its 113-minute running time too long as a trade-off, it’s just as likely that everyone on the couch will lose track of the clock entirely. Mitchells breezes through its established formula, always knowing when to stop and start with necessary character beats that allow members of the family to talk and express what’s on their mind, usually without too many jokes interrupting the emotional catharsis to be had.
But even when the film does get in its own way when it comes to ill-timed gags, it helps that almost all of them pay off with some big laughs, many of them involving the family dog, Monchi, and a pair of defective robots voiced by Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett. Part of what makes the humor feel so fresh and immersive is the animation style, which comes pretty close to perfecting the 2D-esque, comic-book inspired aesthetic pioneered in a big way by Into the Spider-Verse. Here, the motion is even smoother and easier to fall into, with textures feeling completely convincing without needing all the extra detail.
Again, it’s the kind of art direction that will undoubtedly get people excited about mainstream animation in ways they haven’t for a long time. Yes, Pixar has been increasingly raising the bar in terms of amplifying what’s already great about its 3D models set against almost photo-realistic settings. But this approach to animation has its limits, which is why it’s thrilling to see other storytellers finding new ways to tell new stories using new directions in this branch of filmmaking. Sony is doing well to establish its own identity with these pop movies, in ways I wish Walt Disney Animation would do instead of slavishly following in the footsteps of how Pixar approaches the craft.
But on top of the brilliant animation is a story with a big, quirky heart to match. The Mitchells themselves are more off-beat than anything else, but they’re a tribute to modern families everywhere in how everyone can feel included, even if they’re a little awkward and goofy. It’s truer to families today, where Gen X parents themselves are a bit more shameless with their foibles, while the kids can seriously push the envelope when it comes to re-interpreting the world through the lens of a smartphone. This is a wonderful, silly, and whip-smart movie about how these two worlds can find some common ground, and maybe save the world in the process. Even if your family isn’t made up of “Incredibles.”