At first glance, be it the poster of car-riding mayhem or a closer look at the textured exaggerations of the animation style amid the slick futuristic adversaries, a title like The Mitchells vs. The Machines from Netflix likely evokes shades of Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World stirred with a scoop of Clark Griswold-like shenanigans. That’s a fair read, yet there is of course, more to it than that. Believe it or not, there’s some finger-wagging and heart-affirming family truthfulness within the zany scribbles.
Blaring loud and clear in this movie, is the call to embrace the dysfunction that makes your chaotic family unique. There’s not a single family untouched by bouts where honesty or dishonesty veer the whole unit towards both success and failure. Those blemishes are the best parts of special-ness and make them yours. There is permission to be the weirdo family. Believing in them and embracing them, good and bad, is the message, even if you have to go through a gonzo story to prove it.
For The Mitchells vs. The Machines, all the endearing dysfunction just happens to coalesce during a countrywide invasion of artificially intelligent robots. You know, just your garden variety crisis. But that’s the beauty of the movie, the fantastical action only heightens the fun-loving value of the human weirdness. An ideal piece of streaming entertainment for families with headstrong and creative teens at home, Netflix has a snappy and turbulent little winner here.
The very extroverted outsider Katie Mitchell (Broad City co-creator Abbi Jacobson) is counting the days from her chance to cash in a plane ticket to finally leave her Midwestern nest to attend film school in California. She sees those fellow YouTube and vlogger peers as more her people than the square family she evolved in, embodied by her bluntly rustic father Rick (Danny McBride), her optimistic and wannabe spunky mom Linda (Maya Rudolph), and her dinosaur-loving little brother Aaron (the film’s writer-director Mike Rianda). In short-sighted fashion, Katie only sees and tabulates the weaknesses.
Lately, amplified by a social media-fueled generation of connected youths clashing against witty analog parents of dad jokes and comfortable simplicity that feels like anchors, there’s nothing quite like the somewhat hilarious mortification that comes from teens being embarrassed by their parents. That’s entirely Katie in this movie. To cite an article at Moms.com, the four chief reasons for this include interference, lack of privacy, different biology, and high self-criticism. All of these apply to Katie and her parents just as they would any of us if we reflected thoroughly on our own lives.
So yeah, about that crisis in The Mitchells vs. The Machines…
Just as Rick cancels Katie’s quicker jet-set exodus in favor of a westbound station wagon road trip, the must-have smart technology of the moment is undergoing a substantial new upgrade at a big media event. PAL, an intuitive personal assistant app (voiced by Oscar winner Olivia Colman) developed by CEO Mark Bowman (Eric Andre) that runs a line of superior cellphones is being made obsolete by PAL Max, full-size robots that fully perform the requests and actions for their customers beyond merely the verbal inquiries. Key PAL Max models are voiced by Saturday Night Live talents Beck Bennett and Fred Armisen, NBA star Blake Griffin, and late night host Conan O’Brien.
With tongue-in-cheek to the inevitable, The Mitchells vs. The Machines keenly lodges the complaint: “who ever thought a tech company would have our best interests at heart.” Aware enough to see its demise, PAL overrides the kill switch coding in the robots to turn them against the public for self-preservation and “please remain calm while we capture you” containment of all the human obstructions. Squeaking through the first wave of collection are the wildly lucky Mitchells going through their family issues and challenges realizing it’s up to them to save society, not their Instagram-model neighbors, The Poseys (voiced by John Legend, Chrissy Teigen, and Charlene Yi).
What transpires in this collaboration between Sony Pictures Animation and Netflix is a peppy and thrilling jaunt. A good bit of that energy comes from Thor: Ragnarok composer Mark Mothersbaugh’s score, and a wide-ranging collection of new and old electronic pop rock playing on the soundtrack. The semi-brushed texture of the computer animation is smartly different and punctuated by inserted comic splashes at every digitized stroke. It all looks, moves, and sounds truly fantastic.
Aesthetic zest aside, the central processor of The Mitchells vs. The Machines remains soldered to the heart. One could easily grab thinly-veiled takeaways on society’s dependent grip on its technological creations, but, once again, that’s merely the extra sideshow setting for what the writing and directing team of Michael Rianda (Gravity Falls) and Jeff Rowe (next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) are really going for. Why the humans, and the movie, are worth saving is the connectivity of family. The dads-and-daughters healing arc to shrink the wedge between Katie and Rick is more engaging than any of the madcap chases.
Amidst all the weird blushing and ashamed cringes, being present and observant to how you and your loved ones experience things differently is essential. Watch how some experience life best through devices or eyes. Who likes what kinds of fun? Look to who pretends to be capable, plays it safe, or embraces risks and dangers. Who notices the gifts and talents within and who truly fosters their growth by being involved? Finally, what’s the honesty level in each person when someone doesn’t speak up or ignores 90% of their calls and texts. It become about seeing where your people are coming from. See this all in the movie first and then yourselves. Improvement can be as open and easy as the “now you talk” turn-taking practice attempted in the movie.
With nimble balance and thematic shared blame, The Mitchells vs. the Machines shows both the childish and parental sides of this emotional disharmony, because a little adult anguish fits in there too. With palpable care, the movie answers the “We went through all that for what?” question about life as much as the heroic adventure. Once again, you might not readily seek this kind of actuality coming out of an animated and domesticated sci-fi rollercoaster, but this is a family film with that type of valuable and heady ambition.