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Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe's The Mitchells vs. The Machines is a gorgeous movie. From the fun character design, to the clever world building, to various action-heavy sequences, the new animated feature hitting Netflix has a unique look that is frequently given the capacity to pop in exciting and interesting ways. For an hour and fifty-three minutes it’s hard not to be entranced and delighted by the style, which maintains a cartoonish look but crafts incredible depth with shadows and lines. Visually speaking the film is spectacular; you’re just left wishing that the script operated at the same kind of high level.
Instead, the stunning aesthetic of the movie is balanced out with a narrative that is not quite dealing in the same level of creativity. It has a positive message to get across, and the characters are fun to follow, but the plotting is clichéd and overly familiar and it doesn’t quite succeed in landing all of its commentary with its storytelling – mostly because elements don’t connect like it seems the movie intends them to. And while its humor and presentation make up for those weaknesses in part, it still results in the adventure not fully living up to its potential and feeling like a disappointment.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines, based on an original screenplay by Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe, gets off to an extremely rough start with a pointless en media res opening followed by a voice over-driven exposition dump explaining all of the characters and their relationships – but through all of that lazy writing audiences are introduced to the fractured Mitchell family. Katie (Abbi Jacobson) is an aspiring filmmaker brimming with imagination who is excited to head off to film school, but at the same time her disconnect with her parents and sibling is reaching a tipping point. Rick (Danny McBride), her father, has never demonstrated much interest in her movies – an extension of being an outdoors-loving Luddite; Aaron (Rianda), her younger brother with a dinosaur obsession, isn’t quite ready to say goodbye to his best friend; and Linda (Maya Rudolph), her mother, is concerned about the family coming apart at the seams.
It’s clear the Mitchells are in trouble, but Rick and Linda decide to fight back against that negativity by cancelling Katie’s flight plans to film school and planning a road trip instead.
While all of this is happening, the head of the world’s largest technology company, Mark Bowman (Eric Andre), organizes a massive new product launch that will see people’s smart phones replaced by robots… but this doesn’t exactly go as planned thanks to an uprising organized by Pal (Olivia Colman), a virtual assistant Mark created that isn’t too keen on the idea of being rendered obsolete. Pal takes control of an army of flying robots and sends them around the world with the aim of capturing every human and putting them in containment.
This sudden robot apocalypse obviously puts a bit of a crimp in the Mitchell’s cross-country trip, and before long the family is actually the only group of free humans in the world – left with the responsibility of trying to stop the evil artificial intelligence while also repairing their relationships.
The Mitchells Vs. The Machines is gorgeous.
From an animation standpoint, The Mitchells Vs. The Machines is an absolute triumph, and one of the most jaw-dropping releases in the medium from a major studio in recent years. While it keeps things cartoon-y, the texture and detail is extraordinary. It doesn’t go full squash and stretch, but the style finds other ways to be delightfully expressive – not to mention diverse and imaginative. The movie has an amazing outlet for weirdness via Katie’s personal filmmaking style, as her special vision of the world allows the film to occasionally break away from its main aesthetic, and it’s always wonderful. The plot also serves up a number of fun set pieces that are as impressive as they are exciting, from a standoff in a rest area to a showdown with a mall full of Furbys.
With high expectations, the story doesn't pack the punch you hope for.
What unfortunately undercuts the impact of its visuals is a story that doesn’t quite connect in the way it should (somewhat ironic given that the movie went by the title Connected for a spell). There are two principal conflicts in the film, which are Katie’s cold relationship with her father, and the robot apocalypse, and they don’t quite dovetail as you want them too – mostly because of the forced over-intersectionality between filmmaking and technology. There is an attempt and a handshake between the two plots, primarily driven by Rick’s aversion to his computer and overcooked YouTubephobia, but it doesn’t feel as clean as it should, and as a result doesn’t deliver much of an emotional impact.
The fallback in the faulty storytelling is it leaning into the family comedy genre, but jokes are hit and miss as well. There are a number of moments that are laugh-out-loud funny, but there are also dumb clichés – like Linda magically turning into a kung fu expert with mastery in kicking robot ass. The movie also works ridiculously hard to get you to love Monchi, the Mitchell’s cockeyed dog (we’re talking Minions level shove-it-down-your-throat), and you’ll hopefully be more into it than I was, as the strange animal only gets more spotlight in the plot as the story continues.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines didn’t meet what admittedly were extremely high expectations that I had for it, but there’s also no denying that it is a crowd pleaser, and there is plenty about it that deserves to be celebrated. Through and through it’s a beautiful movie, and while the reach of its story exceeds its grasp in some respects, what it accomplishes is more noteworthy than its issues.