For as identifiable as some animation studios tend to make their films (Pixar’s refined CGI, Laika’s signature stop-motion, Disney’s doe-eyed princesses, etc.), Sony Pictures Animation has never quite settled on a brand aesthetic (unless not having an aesthetic qualifies as having an aesthetic, I suppose). Instead, the studio is always chasing after whatever’s most bankable, most commercial in a given moment in pop culture (they’ve released the Hotel Transylvania franchise, updated The Smurfs and gifted us with gems including The Emoji Movie and Angry Birds). With The Mitchells vs. The Machines, the studio seems to have finally managed that magic alchemy that delivers both a delightfully contemporary setting bolstered by clever, eye-catching animation and an emotionally resonant, sufficiently sophisticated story about a family growing up and growing apart in the digital age that results in a truly enjoyable couple of hours at the movies for both kids and adults.
Written and directed by Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe, our entry into the Mitchell family of the title is teenage Katie (Abbie Jacobson), a confident and quirky high schooler who’s been making movies since she was a kid and is about to set out for college in California, in search of “her people.” Her doting mother, Linda (Maya Rudolph), encourages her daughter’s artistic side even if she doesn’t always understand it, and her younger brother Aaron (Rianda), obsessed with all things dinosaurs, might miss her tremendously when she’s moved away, but he’s far too big a kid now to admit such sentimental things. Dad Rick (Danny McBride) is another story, so completely different from Katie that the two have become less and less close over the years; he doesn’t understand technology or her obsession with it and she doesn’t understand what he sees in all his fishing trips and time in nature. In a quick and action-packed sequence at dinner the night before Katie is set to fly off to college, the family dynamic combusts entirely and, in an effort to make it up to his family and hopefully give them all a chance to reconnect, Rick decides to pack up the family jalopy for a road trip to campus together.
Elsewhere, tech mogul Mark Bowman (Eric André) steps out on a large, open stage to announce the latest version of “PAL,” his company’s AI technology that is totally, entirely reliable and in no way in danger of becoming sentient and taking over the world. Nope, no way at all.
It’s a silly plot line, to be sure, and yet it works. With the likes of Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen and Conan O’Brien voicing the robot interfaces in their various forms, the computers and their attempt to take over the planet becomes a a comedic gold mine, and when the wacky Mitchell family finds themselves at the center of this robot apocalypse, the hilarity only grows. At nearly two-hours long, there are several moments in The Mitchells vs. the Machines that feel like natural stopping points, making it slightly surprising the filmmakers decided to just keep going, packing in ever more hijinks and cliff-hangers. Through it all, the film doesn’t lose track of its core thesis, that the family you’ve got is the only one you’ll get and even if you don’t always like them, they’ll always love you no matter what. The film manages to balance these earnest moments, full of sincere sentiments, with the goofy slapstick that will have kids young and old guffawing their way through all the animated action. Visually, the creators cleverly layer multiple animation styles into the finished product, creating a sort of heightened realty for the Mitchells, their animated world able to be animated on top of. It’s frankly unlike anything I can recall seeing in contemporary animated features, no small feat these days and therefore deserving of mention if only for the novelty of it. That it works incredibly well for this jam-packed, family-friendly visual circus of a movie makes it that much more impressive.
By the time the Mitchells have felled every foe and found their way to the biggest, baddest robot boss, Rick and Katie have also found their way back to each other, their restored relationship ultimately at the heart of this otherwise madcap road trip flick. And it’s genuinely heartwarming to watch them mend their once-strong bond; we get glimpses of their relationship over time, and it’s clear there’s only one thing Rick loves more than his fishing and time in nature: his family. Such a pure, healthy father-daughter relationship is rarely so well represented in film, one that acknowledges the challenges in bridging the gaps of generations, genders and more inherent to this dynamic but insists that such a reconnection is not only possible, it’s essential for either of them to be able to be everything they can and want to be.
There’s plenty in The Mitchells vs. The Machines that might seem easy to write off as over-the-top or too silly even for a family-centric animated film. But in fact, the filmmakers—who here make their impressive feature-film debut—have managed to combine all the many elements of what makes a film like this great in just the right proportions to leave viewers of any age completely entertained by the time the credits roll.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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