Saturday, May 1, 2021


The Mitchells vs. the Machines comes from somewhere near the Joe Dante school of filmmaking, biting the hand that makes it, but with such grinning genre style that one sees how it could’ve slipped by unnoticed by the powers that be. It’s an apocalyptic family road trip movie, a rollicking crowd-pleaser of an animated action comedy, wrapping a biting anti-big-tech message in a hectic visual delight suffused with dense pop culture understanding. The thing’s a hoot and a half, moves like lightning, blasts across the screen with color, noise, and comedy, and dares to ask the question: should unregulated idiot tech bros be allowed to kill us all? (The answer is, unsurprisingly, nope.) That it was originally produced for multiplexes by one big technology corporation (Sony), and sold to another (Netflix) after pandemic-influenced scheduling woes, makes its message all the more ironic. 

The story could’ve traveled a usual path. It starts with a moody teen (Abbi Jacobson) heading off to college, forced to go by car from Michigan to California care of her well-meaning parents (Danny McBride and Maya Rudolph) who just want to squeeze in a little more time with her. There’s some typical family tension, some parents-just-don’t-understand posturing and kids-these-days grousing that plays fair enough with these common dynamics. There’s even some easy swipes at excessive screen time pulling apart family togetherness. Ah, but the backdrop happens to be a robot takeover as a dumb computer CEO (Eric Andre) immediately loses control of his new cell phone upgrade. It’s like Siri gone wild, sending swarms of robots to capture all the humans, except, somehow, the Mitchells. It’s up to them to save the world.

Produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), the movie has some of their zany zig-zag comedic patter, with loony unexpected sight gags, pleasantly goofy line reads, and frames chock full of wiggly interest. There’s a distinctive snap and crackle to its punchlines and slapstick, played out with energetic voice performances and a pedal-to-the-metal visual expressiveness. By the time you get to the army of evil Furbys, you know you're watching something special. But writer-directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe (who worked on the late, great series Gravity Falls) also provide a real beating heart of family togetherness behind the cartoony anything-goes action and wild plot turns. They also shepherd a distinctive CG animation style that makes the characters more textured and posed, like exaggeratedly proportioned stop-motion figures, make frames that move loosely in dazzling patterns and swoops with a nonetheless filmic sheen, and layer on 2D hand-drawn embellishments with flair, a la the eye-scrambling Into the Spider-Verse but with an eye toward meme culture. It’s a very modern creature stabbing at the center of the culture's tech-obsessed shallowness with a genuine human love and even-handedness at its core. All that and I laughed my fool head off, too. What a treat!

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