The Mitchells vs. the Machines, 2021, directed by Michael Rianda – 3.5/5 Stars
Fans of animation were excited to hear about the announcement of The Mitchells vs. the Machines this past March. Directed by Gravity Falls creator Michael Rianda and produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, known for their work on The Lego Movie and Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse, the Netflix original set some high expectations for itself solely through these associated names. While it may not quite live up to the hype, a near-impossible feat, it does impress with a beautifully unique animation style, some great performances from its cast of comedians and a touching emotional core.
The movie has a largely straightforward and predictable plot, though not to its detriment. When a robot uprising takes place during the Mitchells’ road trip to take their eldest daughter Katie, played by Abbi Jacobson, to college, family must learn to love each other on a deeper, more emotional level. Though every beat of the story can be seen from a mile away, the framing, pacing and voice performances help the emotional moments stick the landing.
Very quickly, the audience gets a sense of the tone and style of the film’s animation. The three-dimensionally animated characters are highly stylized, and they’re marked by distinct two-dimensional outlines in every frame. The world is largely viewed through the eyes of Katie, an amateur filmmaker herself. This combined with the visual style of the animation gives the entire film a quirky, homemade attitude that feels fresh and distinct. Later, this seamlessly transitions into a sleeker, more futuristic style when the family attempts to infiltrate the robot base, clearly based on the design philosophy of contemporary tech companies like Apple and Microsoft. Everything in the film is bursting with color and personality, and this is probably its greatest strength.
The performances from cast of The Mitchells are also a highlight. Jacobson nails her portrayal of a confused, creative kid looking forward to her first days at college. Danny McBride plays off of Jacobson fantastically as Rick Mitchell, an out-of-touch father who just wants the best for his daughter but who struggles to give her the support she needs. Maya Rudolph is badass and lovable as Katie’s mother, Linda Mitchell, and Olivia Colman is both hilarious and menacing as PAL, leader of the robot army. The weakest link in the cast is director Rianda, who, oddly enough, chose to cast himself as Aaron Mitchell, younger brother of Katie. Rianda’s voice is too old for a child as young as Aaron, and while Aaron is mostly used as comic relief, Rianda’s delivery of jokes feel stilted and cringeworthy. Fortunately, Aaron as a character has limited screen time.
While the film certainly has some laugh-out-loud moments, often assisted by the Mitchells’ adorably ugly pug, Monchi, the humor often stumbles as well. Much of the film’s focus is on society’s over-reliance on technology, giving the title a double meaning. While the filmmakers aren’t wrong in their critiques, the way in which they go about them sometimes feels played-out. There’s also an attempt to integrate internet memes into the stylized animation, something that feels at least 10 years too late.
What really makes the movie worth watching, though, is the bond between Katie and Rick. The father and daughter struggle to understand each other, but over the course of the runtime, the audience gets to know their relationship via some home videos, and the moment at which they finally begin to communicate properly and appreciate each other feels earned, joyous and emotionally resonant.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a delightfully simple, endlessly relatable and undeniably visually stimulating experience. Though not without its flaws, it is definitely a great movie for a rainy afternoon to brighten the mood.