“A solidly entertaining and imaginative movie that will appeal to wide swaths of both its older and younger audiences.”
by Ken Bakely
There is a precarious challenge faced by a movie as busy as Mike Rianda’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines: its deliberately chaotic and zany approach requires some needle-threading between its energetic frenzy and its underlying messaging, but the film largely succeeds in that pursuit. It’s no surprise that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – who have been behind some of the most acclaimed animated features of the last few years – are credited as producers. This is a lively yet focused film, which juggles a whole lot within a jam-packed (but not overstuffed) plot. It is seen primarily from the perspective of Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson), a teenage girl and student filmmaker who has grown apart from her family, which consists of her mother, Linda (Maya Rudolph); father, Rick (Danny McBride); and little brother, Aaron (Rianda). Katie is headed across the country to film school, but instead of the flight she expected, her parents have decided to turn it into one last family bonding experience, in the form of a cross-country road trip (the family dog, Monchi, tags along as well). On the way, chaos strikes: Eric Bowman (Eric Andre), a megalomaniac tech mogul, has created a line of AI robots, which his previous creation, an AI smartphone assistant called PAL (Olivia Colman), feels is the last straw of humans taking tech for granted. She turns the fleet of bots rogue, and they kidnap all of humanity, preparing to fling them into space – except, however, for the Mitchells, who must overcome their differences and grow closer while, of course, saving the world.
This forms the basis of a solidly entertaining and imaginative movie that will appeal to wide swaths of both its older and younger audiences. At its core, The Mitchells vs. the Machines comments on the nature of family and belonging. This is hardly new fare, but the script, written by Rianda and Jeff Rowe, is able to deliver the message in a fresh, enjoyable way. The bigger strictures of its narrative – from its central lessons to some commentary on the dangers of unregulated big tech – are nicely accompanied by small observations and bits – the dynamic between Katie and her extremely tech-averse father is nicely peppered with gags about tech and internet culture at large. It’s an effortlessly integrated comedic component of the nuanced struggles they face to connect, and this carries through into real stakes in the apocalyptic heights of the story, as the Mitchells take on their towering challenge. Complimenting the vividness of the film’s plotting, the animation is crisp, colorful, and energetic, bringing the wildly imagined world to life through a vast slew of CGI accompanied by digressions into hand-drawn and live-action imagery. It’s a lot to take in, but it’s never overwhelming.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines does falter at points – for all that goes on in this movie, it feels curiously slow throughout its midpoint, struggling to take the worldbuilding of its first act and hit the runway to set up the grand finale. But the film is just as able to build a fine rhythm when it does get back on track: the third act so effortlessly brings everything back into focus that there’s nearly a palpable feeling of everything finally clicking into place. Just when there is worry that the movie might have bit off more than it can chew, it recovers with great aplomb. After all, the care in its visual style never falters, and neither does its voice cast – a capable team of actors to deliver the film’s sharp dialogue, with a number of fun cameos along the way. It’s a joy to explore the various details that make The Mitchells vs. the Machines all the more inspired. Even if it doesn’t always connect into the fully kinetic and accomplished movie that it seems to move towards in its best moments, its kind heart, rich writing, and vivid aesthetic are testaments to the bold ambition and drive that’s on display all throughout.