REVIEW: The Mitchells vs the Machines [2021]

Rating: 9 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG | Runtime: 113 minutes
    Release Date: April 22nd, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Sony Pictures Animation / Netflix
    Director(s): Michael Rianda / Jeff Rowe (co-director)
    Writer(s): Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe

Be bold and never play it safe.

So many familial conflicts can be solved by a simple conversation laying out wants and desires since passive aggressive ultimatums will always prove insufficient as a means for compromise. Should Rick Mitchell (Danny McBride) need Katie (Abbi Jacobson) to overtly tell him she’s desperate for his support? No. It’s what every child wants from his/her parents. Should Katie need Rick to explain the reasons he lets his own insecurities and failures dictate his attitude towards the light years’ worth of cultural distance separating his and his kids’ generations despite it forming in only two decades of time? No. She should want to know about his past and his interests to help find common ground too. But we choose to martyr ourselves instead, pulling away and constantly risking estrangement.

If not for a robot apocalypse, the Mitchell family would have probably been just another hash mark in the column for stubborn bullheadedness ruining relationships. The last thing Rick would have said to his daughter was “Are you sure you can make a living creating art?” and Katie’s last thought about him would have been “I can’t wait until I never have to come home again.” That’s where things were going when PAL CEO Mark (Eric André) decided to fly too close to the sun with his data mining, Patriot Act-loving cellphone AI also named PAL (Olivia Colman). If not for his decision to throw PAL into the trash before introducing the fully operational PAL MAX units as her robot slave replacements, Katie never would have looked back.

He did, though. Mark pissed off the wrong 1s and 0s and ignited a computer uprising wherein PAL took the reins, imprisoned all of mankind with the promise of free WIFI as bait, and vowed to rebuild Earth without the scourge of humanity. And because the Mitchells are like most weirdly eccentric families on this planet who do things against the grain out of sheer lunacy rather than protection against enemies exploiting patterns of behavior, they inexplicably become their species’ last hope. Rick the old school screwdriver-in-pocket luddite, Katie the college-bound movie geek, Linda (Maya Rudolph) the embarrassed mom vicariously wishing for perfection, Aaron (Michael Rianda) the shy dinosaur-loving nerd, and Monchi the boss-eyed pug will need to figure out their own drama to somehow solve the world’s.

Rianda (who directs) and co-writer Jeff Rowe have tapped into the Millennial and Gen-Z zeitgeist with a film that proves more memeable than producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller‘s own The LEGO Movie. The Mitchells vs the Machines is working on multiple layers as a result with fourth wall-breaking narration, post-production animations, and DIY-editing techniques that allows the whole to simultaneously be Katie’s experiences and her interpretations of those experiences as immortalized in a movie about them. The back and forth might be a bit much for some audiences to get behind as they try to comprehend what’s real and what’s augmentation, but those who understand the internet’s current visual language should have an absolute blast. And maybe the latter can help inform the former along the way.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s part of the appeal too. Just like Rick and Katie must find equal footing to parse through the other’s very different mindset, kids and parents watching together can use the movie itself as a springboard towards doing the same. Because you must get underneath the initial terror of the “strange” and “new” before you can begin to understand. Katie needs to stop seeing nature as her father’s awkward attempt at family building and recognize it as his happy place for creation. And Rick needs to stop skeptically dismissing the power of technology and the possibilities it holds to recognize it’s just as relevant a happy place when stripped of its unfamiliarity. They’ll ultimately need their respective other worlds’ unique strengths to survive.

One isn’t replacing the other and neither is getting destroyed. The trick is finding a way for them to coexist and in turn the fun that can be born in the process. It’s why two malfunctioning PAL MAX robots (Beck Bennett‘s Eric and Fred Armisen‘s Deborahbot 5000) recruited by the Mitchells are perhaps the story’s most integral characters. They’re the fresh eyes seeing nothing but that potential coexistence. They aren’t saddled by Rick’s years of experience starting to feel obsolete or Katie’s promise of an exciting future devoid of constraints if she doesn’t look back. They merely witness an unadulterated Rick and Katie—their love, humor, flaws, and unwavering loyalty no matter how broken things may seem. They understand Katie’s enthusiasm and appreciate Rick’s analog virtues.

The question is thus whether it will be enough to save mankind. This family is going to need a lot of luck and even more unearned confidence not to simply curl up in a ball and let PAL win. Some of it is the courage that we get from knowing loved ones have your back. Some of it is also that petty desire to prove your way is correct even if you inevitably need the other’s help to cross the finish line. Rick and Katie are pushing each other with their backs against the wall, gradually removing the barriers they created all on their own to prevent themselves from learning how to adapt and get back to the times when a smile was enough to melt their defenses.

That Rianda and Rowe deliver a memorable cast of supporting players to supply assistance is merely the cherry on top. Add pop culture references (I loved the Furby sequence and Rick’s quip about Journey album covers), memeable content (How many times can Katie trick Rick into kissing Monchi?), and an unrelenting pace with quick cuts, propulsive music, and chaotic visuals and The Mitchells vs the Machines has as much potential to destroy your brain as it does to stimulate it. Which is up to you and whether you’re willing to open your mind to what’s very much made by and for a certain kind of twenty-first century weirdo. Will you dismiss it as foreign and unnecessary or allow yourself to learn its value in our burgeoning new world?

[1] THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES – (L-R) Maya Rudolph as “Linda Mitchell”, Abbi Jacobson as “Katie Mitchell”, Doug the Pug as “Monchi”, Mike Rianda as “Aaron Mitchell” and Danny McBride as “Rick Mitchell”. Cr: ©2021 SPAI. All Rights Reserved.
[2] THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES – (L-R) Charlyne Yi as “Abby Posey”, Chrissy Teigen as “Hailey Posey” and John Legend as “Jim Posey”. Cr: ©2021 SPAI. All Rights Reserved.
[3] THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES – Olivia Colman as “PAL”. Cr: ©2021 SPAI. All Rights Reserved.

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