Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 30th, 2021
The Mitchells vs. the Machines (Michael Rianda/Jeff Rowe, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
An almost manically playful movie, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is at once a product of our current era and also very traditional, the story following a coming-of-age arc where a rebellious teen must learn to love her parents again, and vice versa. Set against a deadly robot apocalypse, this cheeky animated confection is at times too hip for its own good, but still charms more often than it doesn’t. With a solid voice cast that includes Abbi Jacobson (6 Balloons), Danny McBride (Arizona), Maya Rudolph (The Willoughbys), Olivia Colman (The Father) and others, it proves a good bit of family fun with solid moral lessons to spare.
Katie (Jacobson) can barely contain her happiness. Just out of high school, she’s off to the college of her dreams where she can meet like-minded filmmakers and become the director she has always wanted to be. She and mom (Rudolph) and dad (McBride) used to be close, but since the latter never watches (or understands) her movies, and always complains about her, she’s ready to move on. Still, she’ll at least miss her brother and dog. See ya, bad memories … time to make new ones.
Not so fast. Mom, ever the negotiator, convinces dad to step up, and the way he does so is to plan one last family road trip, canceling Katie’s flight to California and arranging for all of them to pile into the car for a long drive, instead. As expected, his daughter is less than thrilled. Still, maybe he’s not all wrong, as everyone manages to have something approaching a decent time, at least at first.
Meanwhile, over in Silicon Valley, the head of a tech company, PAL, launches his latest AI device, an ostensible improvement on the smartphone. It turns out that he has created the ultimate killer app, however (voiced by Colman), determined to wipe out humanity. We are doomed, it seems, and all because we can’t help but look for the next upgrade,
How do these stories intersect? Quite well, actually. We know from a prologue that the Mitchells have somehow escaped initial capture, and now we sit tight to see how they manage that. It turns out that being extraordinarily ordinary (though the movies Katie makes are actually pretty cool) is a good thing, and serves the Mitchells well. As does love and bonding. They’re like the opposite of the family in The Incredibles, and all the better for it. The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a wonderful paean to the best parts of being human, messy emotions and all.
Unfortunately, as delightful as it can be, it’s all a bit much, at times, in its aggressive use of the worst aspects of social-media video aesthetics, interrupting the films within the film with freeze frames and pop-up commentary. A little of that would go a long way. Nevertheless, that approach does make a kind of sense, given the larger examination of how much of our world is ruled by our reliance on technology and need for attention. Despite this occasional heavy-handedness, the film works well, and entertains along the way. The Mitchells may rise triumphant at the end, but we all share in their victory.