The Mitchells vs the Machines Synopsis: After Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is accepted into the film school of her dreams, her family (Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, and Michael Rianda) decides to use this opportunity to drive Katie to school as a road trip. When their plans are interrupted by a tech uprising, the Mitchells realize that they must work together to save the world.
I’ve got to be honest, most of Hollywood’s mainstream animated efforts have lost my interest. While there are the occasional gems (last year had two with Soul and Wolfwalkers), most animated films feel like factory-assembled products. Studios copy and paste the same tired narrative formula, gluing in a who’s who ensemble of actors and tired pop culture jokes to excite kids and adults alike. Duds like Trolls World Tour and Scoob exasperate the fatigue of this dynamic, ultimately highlighting the utter soullessness behind these colorful products.
Just when I was starting to lose my faith, producer wonderkids Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) save the day with The Mitchells vs the Machines. Acting as a dynamic breakout for director, writer, and co-star Michael Rianda (Jeff Fowler also co-wrote and co-directed), The Mitchells soars with endless waves of creativity and affability.
Every frame of The Mitchells vs the Machines sings with tremendous attention to detail. With his narrative debut, Rianda and his team of skilled animators create a clever concoction of animated styles, blending the expressive detail of 2D animation with the limitless range of typical 3D efforts. Their thoughtful techniques imbue a distinct visual identity onscreen, with a melody of playful flourishes cleverly accenting the Mitchells’ quirky sensibility (this is one of the few features to combine YouTube visuals in a way that feels cohesive). Rianda and his team infectiously operate like kids playing in the sandbox. Every scene oozes with creatively formed details that consistently amuse and surprise audiences (no spoilers, but let’s just say an old-time toy gets transformed into a Godzilla-esque creation).
Thankfully, Rianda’s visual vibrancy is matched with what’s under the surface. He and Rowe dream up a thoughtful screenplay chock-full of satirical commentary on our own tech-obsessed tendencies. It could have been easy for these gags to feel too cutesy for their own good, but neither writer allows their film to talk down to audiences. The film’s insights are adept and hilarious due to the material’s divine truth, understanding how our populous’s over-reliance on technology could lead to physical and emotional alienation (I think this is an important message for kids growing up in this new age of tech).
The well-constructed thematic elements mesh beautifully with the film’s emotional core. Where most family films handle familial dynamics with careless simplicity, Rianda and Rowe take a nuanced look into a critical time of adolescence. As Kaite grows into her own as a verging adult, she clashes with her parents, as they are still growing to understand who Kaite is becoming. The writers look into this delicate transitional period with emotion and much-needed specificity. Under each argument and critique, the familial unit radiates with deeply-seated care for one another. Credit to the boisterous voice cast for enhancing their emotive roles, with Abbi Jacobson and Danny McBride being particular standouts as the vulnerable daughter-father pair.
The Mitchells vs the Machines could become a new animated staple for some, but there are still lingering missteps holding the film back from all-time greatness. As much as I love the script’s thematic and emotional elements, the narrative structure is as tired as it gets. The characters’ journey to save the world gets a bit too busy at times with flashy visuals and bombastic setpieces. As good as the action looks, it’s far less interesting than what’s going on with the script’s more thoughtful elements.
Minor issues aside, I had a blast with The Mitchells vs the Machines. Brimming with creative energy and earnest intentions, this should be the early frontrunner for next year’s Best Animated Feature race.
The Mitchells vs the Machines opens in select theaters on April 23rd before premiering on Netflix April 30th.
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