2021 | PG | voices of Abbie Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Erica Andre, Olivia Coleman | Written & Directed by Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe | 1 hr 52 mins |
The more in-demand Phil Lord and Chris Miller have become the more they have farmed out their projects, slowly stepping away from directing duties (with the duo only writing The Lego Movie 2 and only Miller involved with story credit for Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse). Their latest animated producing effort, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, sees them only as producers, but proves the high-bar of quality control is still rigidly enforce. Lord and Miller find like-minded kindred spirits with the team behind Disney’s infinitely clever Gravity Falls and the result is a work that is both sweet, smart, satirical and exciting.
Katie Mitchell (Abbie Jacobson) is an aspiring filmmaker whose home videos have earned her a ticket to an out of state college. Feeling the distance between himself and his daughter, dad Rick Mitchell (Danny McBride) cancels the flight and sends the family – mom Linda (Maya Rudolph) and son Aaron (Michael Rianda) on a cross-country goodbye family bonding road trip. The trip soon gets derailed by an invading army of killer robots brought to life when an upgrade turns the smartphones of tech company PAL sentient.
At first glance The Mitchells vs the Machines is another Disney wacky family comedy. Mom and dad are cringe, fittingly seen through the eyes of an embarrassed teenager. Linda is particularly cringe, but anything Maya Rudolph has a hand in is. The movie finds it’s unique voice in Katie, who attempts to turn the trip into a documentary in a bit of spliced in meta humor and who spearheads the family as they become unlikely robot fighters.
It’s the machines side of this story that really makes the movie work. Rianda and Rowe load the chamber with things to say about our smartphone tech addiction, delving past the obvious kids-are-addicted-to-screens to satirizing how we treat them like our friends. “We put arms and legs on your phone”, the PAL ad brags to sell their helper robots with a phone afixed on their face. The bots easily lure humanity into prison pods with the prospect of free wifi and youtube videos. and they’ve lined up a host of voice cameos to give them hilariously banal human-replicating voices. It’s funny stuff, cutting deeper and with bite than a lot of family entertainment that usually likes to take a swipe at technology but within an underlying assumption that all this is good or unavoidably necessary. Rianda and Rowe depict it all as fundamentally ridiculous. In this case, the titular machines are just as easily our tablets and phones as they are the army of vindictive robots.
A lot of the jokes that aren’t tech-based also work, like the group’s run in with a creepy tribe of sentient Furbees or a – my biggest laugh – a throw away joke parodying the United Airlines Welcome Video. This movie makes the smart choices to avoid the broad and go very specific with it’s jokes, even if they will fly right past most of the audience.
My biggest beef with the film (aside from casting Maya Rudolph), is the pacing. It feels like it builds very fast and climaxes with all of our storylines wrapped up and character turns made at what shocking turns out to be the halfway point. The movie spends that extra time (ultimately clocking in at almost a full two hours) building to something bigger and better, but from a character arc perspective, it’s just pounding deeper on the same rings it closed up an hour before in new and not-so-different ways.
The Mitchells vs the Machines takes on the robot apocalypse in an animated, family-friendly way, that is still in that wonderfully witty adult vein of Gravity Falls, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or The Lego Movie. It is an invigorating movie. Very witty, very funny and smartly atune to our screens and the kids, teens and narcissists who love them.