In the last 18 months, audiences around the world have had the pleasure, luxury, and at times, painful experience of watching theatrical movies in the comfort of their own homes. Due to the vast differences between a cinema hall and a living room hall, from the ambient lights, background noise to speaker system, it can be challenging to find the same appreciation for a movie watching it at home for the first time, than if it was first viewed in the cinemas.
But animated movies are somewhat different, in that they were made to hold the audience’s attention in a different way. Maybe it’s because the team knows that children have a different way of focusing their attention, or that there is something less of a visual or audio spectacle, so whether you watch Luca for the first time, or Finding Nemo for the umpteenth time, that magic is retained.
And that’s the benefit of catching Sony’s latest, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, a frenetic, high-energy animated movie that ties in family, relationships, the rise of machines and even LGBT representation. If you haven’t seen the movie’s poster, it’s of the titular family squeezed in their family car, hurled into the air, as if they are going to burst out of the poster/screen. The film is similar in fashion – a compact, quirky ball of infectious energy aimed right at the audience but still simple to make things easy to follow, and the characters easy to root for.
The animation style, with its almost psychedelic swaths of colours and strong kineticism that make the film a visual treat from start to finish, is reminiscent of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which won Best Animated Feature at the 91st Academy Awards in 2019. The similarity is expected, given the involvement of the duo Philp Lord and Christopher Miller as producers in both films. The dialogue moves at a zippy pace and never gets boring, with a healthy dose of humour and wit sprinkled throughout, as if the director, Michael Rianda, already bolting down the highway in the animated series Gravity Falls, stepped on the gas pedal here and broke the sound barrier.
As narratives go, the film tackles the all too relatable themes of parent-child relationship, and the modern era’s relationship with social media and technology. Our protagonist, Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson), is a soon-to-be film student well-versed in navigating the treacherous terrain of social media by wielding internet memes and humour like a weapon. However, her father, Rick Mitchell (Danny McBride), is the rugged, rough around the edges outdoorsman who can barely wrap his head around the idea of a touchscreen.
Katie has no interest, and is mostly annoyed at Rick’s attempts at getting her involved, in outdoor activities that he plans without any discussion, and she cannot wait to leave her family behind as she heads off for college. Alas, or luckily, her father has something else in mind.
As a family-oriented film, The Mitchells vs. the Machines strikes a careful balance in presenting the inevitable divide between parent and child fairly. For example, the road trip that the family embarks on started when Rick cancelled Katie’s flight ticket to her university without asking her. Rick is unable to wholeheartedly support the passion Katie has for film, nor is he able to empathise with the enthusiasm she shows for her projects. Many narratives that approach this theme end up leaning towards either the parent’s or the child’s side. Here, however, there is surprising nuance in the treatment of the issue, where both Katie and Rick need to understand each other’s perspective, reaching a more comfortable understanding about how to move forward, mending their relationship, right before saving the world.
Yes, the Mitchell family, which includes Katie’s brother Aaron (voiced by the director Michael Rianda), her mother Linda (Maya Rudolph, who’s also in Luca), and the pet dog Monchi (Doug the Pug), saves the world. Each family member carries their own piece of strangeness, and learns to live better with them over the course of the film. Even though the film presents the Mitchells as the ‘odd’ family, compared to the bizarrely perfect Poseys (or is it Posies?), it is clear that the seemingly weirder family is the one that is more true to life.
One thing the movie handles well is how it depicts Katie as an openly gay character, but also as the main one in a family focused movie. There is no ambiguity in her depiction and it doesn’t become a point of contention or conflict – it’s just who she is as she is thrust into a war where machines want to take over the planet.
The family dynamics play out against the backdrop of an AI uprising caused by the tech mogul, Mark Bowman (Eric André), when he tossed his original AI PAL aside in favour of a brand new line of robots with an updated AI. There is a cautionary aspect to the film, as it portrays society incapable of operating when there is no W-iFi, reducing people to headless chickens running around in a state of panic.
However, the handling of the theme is again refreshingly fair, as technology is also portrayed as the way for people to connect with a wider world, and learning to adapt to the technological norms of the world plays a key part in allowing the Mitchells to stop the robot apocalypse. The message seems to be a reminder not to forget the good or unbroken for the unnecessarily new.
The plot, while simple, serves as an anchor as the audience is bombarded with gorgeous visual spectacles, clever jokes, and numerous pop culture references. Still, this is an animated movie where no one dies, so the existence of a ‘kill code’ for the robots, and the way the Mitchells obtain it, is a bit too convenient in its execution. This is a tiny bit of contrivance and is more of a nitpick, because it doesn’t take away from the excellent approach the film takes with its core messages.
For a film that adopts familiar themes and character archetypes, and presents consistently humorous yet action-packed scenes, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is an unexpectedly meaningful and thoughtful family film.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
The Mitchells vs. the Machines carries important, timeless messages on the back of its action-packed, visually stunning veneer. It is a fun road trip through a robot apocalypse for the whole family.
Story - 8/10
Direction - 8/10
Characterisation - 8/10
Geek Satisfaction - 8.5/10