Did anyone at Sony Pictures Animation raise an eyebrow when their latest feature, in which Silicon Valley is painted as a neon-hued Mordor, was picked up by Netflix?
The streamer’s pandemic-induced acquisition of The Mitchells vs. the Machines feels apt: it adds a layer of meta significance to an already very self-reflexive film. Mitchells is interested in the role of tech in our world — particularly the intrusion of screens into family life — and it will now be watched at home, on small screens, vying for viewers’ attention with the smartphones in their pockets.
Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is a teenage misfit and keen amateur filmmaker: her viral Youtube videos have secured her a place at California College of Film, which she’s about to take up. Her artistic efforts are largely ignored by her father Rick (Danny McBride), whose technophobia has created a rift between them. In a clumsy attempt to make amends, he organizes a surprise family road trip, which goes awry when the world’s machines stage a diabolical uprising.
The Mitchells, who director Mike Rianda (a veteran of the Disney series Gravity Falls) says are inspired by his own family, are a bundle of quirks. Their family dynamic is vividly expressed, not least through their subtle, unconventional acting; the character designs are allowed to embrace caricature when the action or comedy requires it. The Mitchell home feels lived-in, the rooms cluttered and the furnishings a little worn, which makes for a strong contrast with the antiseptic tech world. (Credit is due to production and character designer Lindsey Olivares.)
Meanwhile, Katie’s inner state is sometimes visualized in the form of sketchbook-like 2d pop-up animation. It’s a nice touch — a neat comment on the augmented-reality world she’s comfortable in — and a reminder that, of the major animation studios, Sony (which won an Oscar for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) is currently the most at ease with stylistic experiments.
The uprising emerges from Pal Labs, a company that embodies the least flattering aspects of Apple and Google. The script (by Rianda and co-director Jeff Rowe, another Gravity Falls alumnus) provides some slight motivation — a proprietary virtual assistant (Olivia Colman) feels slighted when replaced with a new system, and rebels — but it doesn’t dwell on the implications of AI, excessive corporate power, and other big questions of Big Tech. Instead, the conflict serves to frame the relationship between Katie and Rick, which evolves as they learn to fight together against the robots. (“It’s just like in a movie,” quips Katie. “This isn’t a movie,” says Rick at another point.)
The film thinks of the Mitchells as dysfunctional: “What would a functional family do?” asks mother Linda when in a tight spot. Yet they struck me as loving, bound by a common sense of humor, and remarkably cohesive in a crisis. Katie is positioned as our protagonist, but her character arc is shallow: it was clear to me that she just needs to leave home, as 18-year-olds do. Rick has more self-reflection to do. He is the story’s emotional heart, and the focus on Katie unbalances the film.
The machine mayhem generates lots of humor. Those old enough to remember the late-nineties fever dream that was the Furby craze will enjoy a bravura set piece involving the toys. Younger viewers may be nonplussed. The trouble with jokes about tech and memes is that they date quickly, and tend to pale next to the wild, unpredictable comedy of the actual internet. How can scripted gags about cat filters feel fresh when a Texas lawyer has already given us the real deal?
It’s still rare to see an animated film address technology’s role in our world through the lens of family life. Mitchells has an interesting set-up, but squanders it by diverting into frenetic action and comedy, in which the behavior of both the people and the tech is increasingly arbitrary. Somewhere in the third act, as the characters took on Incredibles-like superpowers, I found my mind drifting to the phone in my pocket.
“The Mitchells vs. The Machines” will be released on Netflix on April 30.
Cast: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Mike Rianda, Eric André, Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, Charlyne Yi, Blake Griffin, Conan O’Brien
Directed by Mike Rianda
Co-director: Jeff Rowe
Produced by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Kurt Albrecht
Written by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe
Executive producers: Will Allegra, Louis Koo Tin Lok
Co-producers: Vanessa Choy, Dan Chuba
Music by Mark Mothersbaugh
Editor: Greg Levitan
Production designer and character designer: Lindsey Olivares
Visual effects supervisor: Michael Lasker
Art director: Toby Wilson
Head of story: Guillermo Martinez
Music supervision by Kier Lehman
Head of layout: Rich Turner
Head of character animation: Alan Hawkins
Supervising animators: Jocelyn Cofer, Chad Ellis, Tim Kallok, Nick Kondo, Rohini Kumar, Toby Pedersen, Jose Luis Llado Porquer, Dylan Reid, Tim Rudder, Matt Shepherd, Kelsey Wagner
Production manager: Matt Sharack
Digital producer: Genevieve West
CG supervisors: Benjamin Aguillon, Katherine Renee Jones, Nicola Lavender, Jim McLean, Kieran Tether, Larry Weiss