Rated PG for action and some language
A few years ago, I was very surprised when Sony Pictures Animation’s film Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse proved that the studio could actually do something worthwhile beyond such mediocre fluff as The Emoji Movie, and The Angry Birds Movie. Up until Spiderverse, I had felt their 2007 release Surf’s Up was the last time they had taken a “creative” chance.
Over the last year, the studio’s latest animated film The Mitchells vs The Machines (at one point titled Connected) looked like its future was unknown, when the pandemic caused it to drop from theatrical release schedules. That future was made a little brighter, when Netflix worked out a deal to bring the film to their streaming service in late April, allowing the Mitchell family to become escapist fare for many families looking for an escape from the comfort of their own homes.
Katie Michell (Abbi Jacobson) is a teenager who longs to escape from her mundane midwestern world, and find others that share her creative views on film and graphics. When she gets accepted to a film school in California, her dad Rick (Danny McBride) decides to take her there via a family road trip with her mom Linda (Maya Rudolph), dinosaur-obsessed brother Aaron (Michael Rianda), and the family dog, Monchi.
Katie does her best to grin and bear it as the trip goes on, but things take an unexpected turn when an advanced artificial intelligence intends to wipe out humanity, leaving the Mitchell family as Earth’s only hope.
Following Sony’s last animated film and its awards season wins, my biggest fear was that the animation studio division would “pull a Dreamworks,” and just make everything in the Spiderverse style. Fortunately, that does not appear to be the case with The Mitchells.
A highlight of the art style that directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe have gone with, is to render the world of the film like a digital painting. There are a number of soft edges on the characters, and there is an effort to exaggerate vs make things seem photo-real. In a way, it’s a bit like the exaggerated stylings Laika Studios used in the world of Paranorman, making it feel like the concept art has come to life.
Over the years, we’ve seen all manner of dysfunctional family road trip films (from National Lampoons to A Goofy Movie), but it is surprising how much restraint is put on not making the Mitchells “the worst family in the world.” Each one of them has their own issues/faults/etc, but for the most part, they do an okay job of getting along with each other.
One of the main storypoints is the disconnect between Katie and her dad. Rick Mitchell is one of those “analog” parents who tolerates computers, but is moreso old-fashioned compared to the rest of his family. In a way, the father/daughter disconnect is a bit like the father/son disconnect in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who also produced this film). It also helps that Katie’s mom and brother also seem to be hoping for the two to reconcile on the trip, and they end up being supportive figures in some key moments.
One of the secondary subplots involves the company PAL Labs (think of an Apple/Adobe/Amazon tech conglomerate), and its takeover plans. For the most part, the filmmakers mine this for humor rather than drama, but it never really feels they find a good balancing act for these moments. There’s even an attempt to mine humor from a pair of defective robots (voiced by Beck Bennett and Fred Armisen), but they almost feel like afterthoughts in the film.
The films efforts to be an enjoyable family film is what really made me go back and re-watch it several times. Comedy films can be hard to win me over, but The Mitchells has its heart in the right place, and that allowed me to get sucked in by its charm. The co-directing team also supplied the screenplay, and were writers on the series Gravity Falls. If you saw that series and enjoyed it, you’ll definitely see similarities to some of the comedy beats here.
For the last few decades, it has felt like so many animated features dipped into the well of Shrek by just throwing pop-culture references at people in the name of “comedy.” This film has a few, but shows a good deal of restraint for the most part, relying moreso on situational comedy. There also is an added bonus of drawn and creative embellishments that look as if Katie herself has edited this film together.
Even if it doesn’t hit the emotional highs of Spiderverse, The Mitchells vs The Machines manages to be a pretty decent comedy, with plenty of heart. It manages to not get bogged down too deeply in popular culture, and tries to keep its focus on characterization (even if the third act does become a bit too long in trying to reach its conclusion).
After seeing this film, I am hoping this means that a new era of creativity is being fostered at Sony Pictures Animation, that can give us films that push the limits on what animated films can look like, while also giving us entertaining and emotional stories.
Final Grade: B+