The Mitchells vs. The Machines avoids tired lecturing about technology in favor of a heartfelt family comedy

By: Steve Pulaski

The Mitchells vs. The Machines operates on a minefield of pitfalls, but sidesteps them in incredible fashion. It’s a dazzling jolt of internet-centric humor that doesn’t succumb to tired “meme jokes.” In addition, it finds better ways to occupy its time than to lecture us on our overreliance on technology. It’s so astute on all cylinders that it’s unsurprising it comes from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s production company, who gifted us two of the best animated films of the 2010s: The LEGO Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines opens by illustrating the ever-widening generation gap between Katie (Abbi Jacobson) and her father Rick (Danny McBride), further compounded by technology. Katie is a creative soul with a deep appreciation for film. An Art of Film textbook sits on her desk in the room where she creates many viral short films, most of which starring her chunky pug Monchi. Dad, on the other hand, can’t even figure out the bare-basics of a computer. Rick is a well-meaning father, but his passion for the outdoors and woodworking is lost on his daughter. His idea of a gift is a multi-purpose screwdriver.

When Katie is about to leave home to attend film school in California, Rick has an idea: the family — including mom Linda (Maya Rudolph), Katie’s younger brother Aaron (director Mike Rianda), and of course the adorable Monchi — should road-trip with her across the country.

They so happen to embark on the day the founder of PAL Labs (Eric André) has introduced his new version of PAL (this universe’s iPhone, in so many words). Rather than being a Siri-like assistant, this one is a full-blown robot that can be commanded to do pretty much any task no matter how elaborate or menial. The original PAL virtual assistant (effectively voiced by Olivia Colman) is resentful of being replaced by a newer model, and through the powers within her, turns all of the new PAL assistants against its human owners. The robots shutdown Wi-Fi across the world, imprison humans in pods, and are set to end the human race. The Mitchell’s wind up being the last family to walk the Earth. Through the help of two defective, easily swayed robots (voiced by Beck Bennett and Fred Armisen), they set out to stop the impending robot apocalypse.

Just when you think animation has excelled to the point where it can no longer impress you with CGI wizardry, here comes The Mitchells vs. The Machines to wow you all over again. This is (fittingly) the most visually dazzling animated film since Spider-Verse, which drew inspiration from urban street-art and noir-style comic books. The Mitchells vs. The Machines appropriately feels like a middle school-centric graphic novel come to life, with its colorful on-screen text and hand-drawn pop-up effects. Its brimful of pizzazz thanks to detail-oriented frames and elaborate settings curated to give the feel of hand-drawn animation. It’s impossible to catch all the Easter eggs the first time around. Don’t worry; your kids (and maybe even you) will happily indulge in a second or third viewing.

Doubly impressive is how the writing/directing team of Rianda and Jeff Rowe subvert the archetypes of their characters, specifically Katie and Rick. Katie is not your typical outcast and Rick isn’t your cookie-cutter aloof father. Both have their flaws as humans. It goes deeper than the clichés. Katie doesn’t acknowledge her father’s heart is always in the right place despite the fact he seems to disregard her interests in film. Meanwhile, Rick never took the time to engage his daughter and grow with her, leaving their relationship stunted. Having a father who always seems to want to read anything but what his son wrote — or entertain just about anything else besides his projects — I identify a lot with their strained dynamic. At Katie’s age, I had the same misgivings towards my father.

One common issue with Lord/Miller-helmed projects remains. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is occasionally too manic. Like The LEGO Movie, and even Spider-Verse, you just wish these movies would sometimes slow down for the betterment of the story and the visuals that clearly took hundreds of hours of perfecting. The worlds these two have created are so much fun to inhabit. I just wish we were allowed to take them in rather than having to rewind or pause to admire their true effect.

I don’t believe it’s hyperbolic to consider The Mitchells vs. The Machines the new, modernized Incredibles. While not necessarily a superhero story, this is a lovable family I wouldn’t mind seeing again sometime soon. The chemistry of the cast sells their characters. The relatability housed in the writing makes them a special breed and therein leads to a special film. If only this was a big-screen affair as it was once planned.

NOTE: The Mitchells vs. The Machines is now available to stream on Netflix.

Grade: A-

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