In this Sony Animation movie, which premieres on Netflix, a barely functioning family becomes humanity’s last hope when a robot apocalypse led by evil Olivia Colman interrupts their road trip.
Producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who worked on The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and writer-directors Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, who worked on the iconic Disney Channel toon series Gravity Falls, are among the cast members of The Mitchells vs. the Machines. In their fast-paced fantasy adventure, an average family is charged with stopping a robot apocalypse that threatens to wipe mankind out on their own. It sounds even better when you hear that Olivia Colman is leading the A.I. rebellion as the voice of a disgruntled mobile digital assistant, backed up by a Furby army.
This new film from Sony Pictures Animation was acquired by Netflix after its theatrical release was canceled due to repeated pandemic rescheduling. It will probably depend on your age whether you find it more frantic or enjoyable. The best animated films are able to keep children amused while also enticing adults. With a hyperactive pop sensibility weaned on social media and candy-colored images awash in video filters, emojis, memes, and wacky retro comic-book graphics, this one leans toward the junior end of the dial. It will be devoured by hipsters and nerds who like to pretend they are.
Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), a film-geek misfit who has been creating narratively ambitious videos for her YouTube channel for years, including Dog Cop, a crime-fighting series starring the family’s bug-eyed pug Monchi, is the protagonist. Katie sees the world through the lens of movies, and Rianda and Rowe follow her lead. That means I, Robot-style marching automaton powers akin to Star Wars’ stormtroopers, as well as a possibility of mass-scale human extinction a la War of the Worlds. However, there’s a fine line between clever cinematic parody and bland pastiche.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines reminds me most of The Incredibles, which features an underachieving family that relies on their own shaky resources rather than superpowers.
The Mitchells are described as “weird but awesome” in the film. However, they seem to be similar to a slew of traditional sitcom families who bicker and bond over a teen’s need for freedom and a clingy parent’s separation anxiety. Katie’s father, Rick Mitchell (Danny McBride), is the latter in this case, and his overprotective dedication translates into a lack of confidence in his daughter’s career goal of becoming a director. Rick tries to mend their split by canceling Katie’s flight and rethinking her travel plans as a family road trip in their beat-up ’93 burnt orange stick-shift station wagon on the eve of her departure for film school in California.By this point, it should be obvious that 1993 is the Jurassic Age for Rianda and Rowe’s target audience.
Katie’s kid brother Aaron (voiced by Rianda) has an addiction, which is lovingly indulged by their caring peacekeeper mother Linda (Maya Rudolph). The Mitchells stop at a dinosaur theme park in Kansas to break up the monotony of their cross-country journey. There, they meet the Poseys, Jim and Hailey (John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, in a cute casting wink) and their daughter Abby (Charlyne Yi), who is the same age as the terminally shy Aaron and shares his love of prehistoric animals. The Poseys’ annual family vacation is Instagrammed to perfection, making them the polar opposite of the Mitchells’ chaotic, dysfunctional family.
Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, superstar tech guru Marc Bowman (Eric André) wears his $1,000 hoodie to unleash the next must-have gadget from his monopolistic Pal corporate in front of an adoring crowd. It’s a next-generation digital assistant, a completely functioning Pal Max robot that makes smartphones redundant — including Marc’s own, voiced by Colman — in a moment. The tech culture of constant upgrade is likened to offspring leaving their parents behind in their eagerness to find “their people” in crude but successful terms.
Marc’s smartphone isn’t fond of being thrown away. She reprograms the Pal Max fleet and sets in motion a scheme for world dominance involving human confinement in pods to be fired into space in huge rockets before the product demonstration is completed. “It’s almost like stealing people’s data and handing it over to a hyper-intelligent A.I. as part of an unchecked software cartel was a terrible thing,” Marc apologizes as he submits to the machines’ uprising. The alarmed human exiles are pacified with free WiFi in one of several droll jokes about computer addiction.
When the flying robots descend on Kansas, the smoothly coordinated disaster response plan of the Poseys proves no match for advanced technology. That leaves the scrappy Mitchells to patch up their differences and save the species from extinction, with help from two defective Pal Maxes damaged in the skirmish, Eric (Beck Bennett) and Deborahbot 5000 (Fred Armisen). Rianda and Rowe’s storytelling tends toward the manic from the start, but they floor the accelerator from the midpoint through to a climactic stretch that spirals into giddy videogame action, all designed to reinforce the tender, and inevitably moving, point that families are worth fighting for.
There are amusing touches, like a Colorado mall interlude with shades of Dawn on the Dead, in which anything with a Pal chip becomes weaponized, from marauding Roombas and soda machines to washer-driers with a “Carnage” cycle. “Who would’ve dreamed the tech companies wouldn’t have our best interests at heart,” says sweet-natured Linda, whose fierce maternal instincts nonetheless make her a force to be reckoned with. Chubby Monchi also becomes an asset, thanks to the Pal Max brain’s inability to identify him as dog, pig or loaf of bread. And the more advanced Glaxxon 5000 (voiced by Conan O’Brien) is improbably thwarted by Katie and Rick’s ear-splitting version of the T.I.-Rihanna hit “Live Your Life,” one of many pop tunes interlaced with Mark Mothersbaugh’s crazy-synth score.
I wish the film’s laughs were as consistent as its energy, giving its able voice cast better material, and that there had been more distinctive story beats like the unexpected hints that Katie is gay. Ultimately, this is an original adventure that feels stitched together out of a hundred familiar film plots, often freely acknowledging its pop-cultural plundering, as in the family’s obligatory slo-mo power strut away from a building exploding in flames. But for audiences content with rapid-fire juvenilia, the busy patchwork of prefab elements will be entertaining enough.
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, One Cool Films, Lord Miller, Sony Pictures Animation
Cast: Danny McBride, Abbi Jacobson, Maya Rudolph, Eric André, Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen, Blake Griffin, Conan O’Brien, Charlyne Yi, Sasheer Zamata, Alex Hirsch, Jay Pharoah
Director: Mike Rianda
Co-director: Jeff Rowe
Screenwriters: Mike Rianda, Jeff Rowe
Producers: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Kurt Albrecht
Executive producers: Will Allegra, Louis Koo Tin Lok
Production and character designer: Lindsey Olivares
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Editor: Greg Levitan
Visual effects supervisor: Michael Lasker
Casting: Brittany Grooms, Tamara Hunter
Source: Hollywood Reporter