The end of the world as we know it has never been so family-friendly! In the animated adventure The Mitchells vs. the Machines, the rise of the machines forces a feuding father-daughter duo to come together to save the world.
Gravity Falls’ Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe reteamed to write and direct this original feature, and you can feel the verve from their previous project. Like the Pines family, the Mitchells are a bunch of lovable weirdos, who get on each others’ nerves, but can always depend on each other when things get wild.
Abbi Jacobson stars as Katie Mitchell, a queer teen filmmaker who is rip-roaring ready to head off to a far-flung college in California. However, on the eve of her departure, a fight with her dad Rick (Danny McBride) brings on disaster. Fearful of losing his little girl, Rick cancels her flight and bosses the whole family into an impromptu road trip. Peacemaking mom Linda (Maya Rudolph) is giddy over the chance for charming family photo ops, while dinosaur-obsessed little brother Aaron (Michael Rianda) is grateful for a few more days with his big sis.
Along the road, Katie tries to make the best of an infuriating situation by making a movie montage of pranks involving her muse, the family’s adorably wall-eyed pug Monchi (voiced by the famous Doug The Pug.) Her nature-loving dad bickers with her about her supposed obsession with her phone, and then the next generation of Siri rises a robot army and begins popping people into floating cubes. Just like that, the hapless Mitchells are mankind’s last hope against AI overlords. Much hijinks ensue.
The father/daughter plot has shades of The Croods, which an old-school macho dad who can’t connect to his daughter’s view of the world. Rick looks befuddled at Katie dressing the family dog up as a cop, and he can’t understand why she’s not in awe of his latest taxidermied duck. (To be fair, it’s a beaut!) At the heart of their dispute is finger-wagging over people being TOO into their phones at the expense of their family. Yet the film doesn’t seem to know how it feels about our culture’s cell phone obsession.
On one hand, there’s the requisite scene where a family dinner is silent because of everyone staring into their screens. Then, of course the big bad is a literal sentient cell phone (a keenly scolding Olivia Colman). However, Rick’s totally opposed to phones and still can’t talk to his kid. Plus, Katie uses her phone not only to connect to the new community at college, where she hopes to find her “tribe,” but also to make art and bond with her brother over videos and other internet goofiness. In a time of pandemic, when phones allowed families to stay connected safely, this anti-phone screed feels achingly obsolete.
The family messaging felt similarly old-school. Yes, like so many parents before him, Rick is terrified of losing his little girl. However, his clinging to home movies of when he made up most of her world isn’t the solution. His trying to keep her from finding a chosen family isn’t a solution. Yet the film wallows in his self-pity! Thankfully, an action-packed climax slows down to give Rick a moment to reflect and truly see his daughter, not only for the “little buddy” she was but the incredible person she’s becoming.
While the themes are flimsy, The Mitchells vs. the Machines has plenty that’s worthwhile. The adventure on the road pulls in some seriously silly bits, involving clever camouflage, dunderheaded droids, and ever-poised picture-perfect neighbors, who—of course—are voiced by Chrissy Teigen and John Legend. If you loved Gravity Falls, you’ll relish in the ways Rianda and Rowe resurrected the spirit of that sharply funny fantasy show with superbly setup visual gags (the reveal of a promising pit stop made me cackle in delight) and inventive actions sequences that pull influences from midnight movies and the abject absurdity of the Furby craze. On top of all this, the slack-jawed pug is a visual gag that just keeps giving, all the way through a high-flying final act that is wonderfully outlandish.
Throughout all of this, The Mitchells vs. the Machines embraces a unique—though arguably jarring—aesthetic that reminded me of Ninjababy and The Amazing World of Gumball. Basically, Rianda and Rowe refuse to settle on one aesthetic. Their characters are rendered in a sharp 3D-CG style, with black accents that nod to hand-drawn animation. However, Katie—as hero and narrator—injects her unique sense of artistry into the storytelling with 2D scribbles popping up to accent her feelings. Like in the Norwegian comedy Ninjababy, these doodles illustrate not only her emotions (hearts, angry faces, title cards proclaiming the Mitchells “Worst Family Of All Time”), but also a running insight into her imagination, which—in this case—will have a hand in saving the day.
Also folded in are clips of live-action people and a real screaming gibbon. At first, I found this frustratingly disjointed, kicking me out of the world of the Mitchells. However, then I recognized how these style collisions reflect how we communicate on our phones, with gifs and memes and photos. It’s fittingly chaotic, like the clashing animation styles in The Amazing World of Gumball, where 2D and 3D cartoons interact alongside a human chin inverted and strapped with googly eyes. So, every flourish that breaks from The Mitchells vs. the Machines’s central aesthetic is a glimpse inside Katie’s mind, allowing us to get to know her even better than her dad dares.
While a wonky ride, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is undeniably fun and pleasantly unpredictable. The voice cast brings plenty of energy to these quirky characters. Rianda and Rowe create a rich world that’s familiar yet flecked with wackiness, weirdness, and excitement. And in the end, the Mitchells are a pretty charming bunch. Give them and their robopocalypse romp a spin!
The Mitchells vs. the Machines will premiere in theaters on April 23 and will be available on Netflix on April 30.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Header Image Source: Netflix