Mike Rianda’s dizzying debut features vibrant, refreshing animation and oodles of style, even as its dysfunctional family dynamics ring a little familiar.
The second The Mitchells vs. the Machines gets started, it’s like a breath of fresh air. It’s a colorful explosion on screen, and for all Disney and Pixar’s charms, it’s simply a joy to see an animated film that looks nothing like theirs. Though perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising considering it was produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the duo behind Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, the most interesting and original animated film from a big studio in years.
Helmed by Gravity Falls writers Michael Rianda (who also served as creative director on the show) and Jeff Rowe, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is an adventure-filled romp that pits your average family against an uprising of sentient robots.
Teen Katie (Abbi Jacobson) has always been an outsider so she sees her acceptance into film school as a way to escape her crazy family and find her people. Dad Rick (Danny McBride) means well but never seems to see eye to eye with his daughter anymore. After a fight, he decides the time to fix their relationship is now or never, so instead of dropping Katie off at the airport he packs up the whole family for one last cross-country road trip.
Unfortunately, just as they get rolling, mega tech corporation and Apple stand-in Pal launches a new AI (voiced by Olivia Colman) that’s hacked and turned against humanity almost immediately. Now the only people left to stop them and save the world are the Mitchells.
If the plot already feels a little overwrought, you’re not wrong. In general, there’s a lot going on in The Mitchells vs. the Machines on a practical level. Because while the visual style is refreshing, it’s also a little overwhelming. It combines classic CGI animation with film and 2-D doodles and a modern YouTube-inspired sense of anarchy that can lead to a little bit of sensory overload.
It’s an overload that’s welcome, though. That these myriad styles don’t always work when they blend together doesn’t matter nearly as much as how fun it is to see a movie try something new. Trying to integrate little pieces of Internet humor (like this monkey clip that makes several appearances) is more than just fun, it feels like an attempt to push big-budget animation further, to be more daring. And it suits the narration from Katie, who doesn’t just love online videos and memes but makes them herself.
Rocky though the execution may be, it’s the sort of style that makes you excited to imagine what Rowe and Rianda will do next. Unfortunately, the story itself is far less adventurous. It’s chock full of gags, action, and family dynamics, but while it might feel fresh to the kids watching, it’ll be pretty well-worn territory for the parents. That said, the predictability is only truly disappointing in comparison to the film’s visual style—you can’t help but want it to try and do as much as the animation!
That said, it’s still a fairly enjoyable watch. For every gag that misses, there’s at least one that hits, even if it only lands with a smile or a chuckle instead of a belly laugh. There’s a particularly good ongoing bit about the rampaging robots’ inability to tell whether the Mitchells’ family dog, a wall-eyed pug named Monchi, is a loaf of bread or a pig.
That said, in playing the script so safe, Rowe and Rianda (who also wrote the screenplay) undercut their core emotional message. The film is supposed to be about a father and daughter learning to respect and understand each other, but the inciting action of the film is based on Rick making an egregious breach of trust.
Rocky though the execution may be, it’s the sort of style that makes you excited to imagine what Rowe and Rianda will do next.
In order to take their family road trip, he cancels Katie’s flight without her knowledge or consent the night before she’s due to leave. He cheerfully informs her that the school said it’s okay for her to miss her first week, including orientation. Flashing back to my own college experience, I can’t imagine anything more devastating or mortifying.
When Katie’s reaction is anger with her dad and a desire to tell him whatever he wants to hear so she can move on with her life, Rowe and Rianda position it as if this is just as bad as what her father has done. The truth is, it doesn’t even come close. In fact, it’s merely a sound and justified reaction to her dad’s behavior.
This isn’t a story with two sides, no matter how much they might wish it to be. A far more interesting and emotionally honest movie would be one brave enough to deal with a father’s failings without justifying them or villainizing the child he let down.
Instead, The Mitchells vs. the Machines walks a path far more well-trod, which holds it back from being a truly great debut. If Rowe and Rianda can learn to be as innovative and adventurous in their storytelling as they are in their animation, then who knows what heights their next film might hit.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines uploads itself to theaters on April 23rd, before coming to Netflix April 30th.