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+
Rated R for violence and language throughout
While I grew up loving and watching films made by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, I was always on the lookout for new directors to add to that must-see list, who would engage my senses with their unique vision. In the late 2000’s, the name Edgar Wright quickly made the leap onto that list.
Wright’s films had a nostalgic taste of pop-culture, while often engaging in stories where their somewhat childish protagonists, would need to take charge of their lives, and grow up (often through rather bizarre circumstances!).
After he was let go from the Marvel Studios production of Ant-Man, many wondered just where Wright’s creativity would go afterwards. I will admit, when the title of his next writer/director project came up, my first thought was a mental flash to the poster for the family comedy, Baby’s Day Out.
However, once the first trailers hit for his new film, that image was thrown aside, as I soon felt I had found my must-see film for the Summer of 2017.
In Atlanta, Georgia, a young man known only as Baby (Ansel Elgort), serves as the getaway driver for a number of heists, engineered by a man known as Doc (Kevin Spacey).
Unlike a typical getaway driver, Baby is usually plugged into one of his many iPods (the music helps cancel out the ringing of tinnitus in his ears), which serve as a soundtrack to the numerous jobs he pulls.
One day, Baby chances upon a waitress named Debora (Lily James). Her love of music and engaging Baby in conversation, may be just what he’s looking for. But, in order to have a chance with her, Baby has to get out of his ‘job’…which may not be as easy as he thinks.
While Wright’s Shaun of the Dead focused on 30-somethings, and Scott Pilgrim vs the World focused on teenagers, Baby Driver is his first film to focus on 20-somethings. It definitely helps in a story that deals with a young man named Baby, who is at a crossroads in his life, with a few options…many of which are not the sanest of choices.
Ansel Elgort plays Baby as a quiet-yet-observant young man, who speaks only when spoken to, or when he feels he has something to say. Also of note is the pop-cultural flair that his wardrobe displays, with the white-and-back shirt/vest, looking like it came from Han Solo’s closet. In a sense, Baby is like an earthbound Han: using his driving skills to make money, but not really wanting to get involved in other’s affairs (and like Solo, Baby has a debt or two to pay off!). There is also a sense of dignity to what Baby does, in that while he is helping others commit crimes, he does not want to hurt the innocent.
To Baby, the music on his iPod‘s are a soundtrack to the world he lives in, and to him, the world has to sync up to them in order for him to function (I got a big kick out of him telling some of his cohorts to wait to pull off their job, until he reset a song!).
Along with filmmakers Cameron Crowe and James Gunn, Wright is one of the film filmmakers who really knows how to put together a decent playlist. Every film he’s made has usually featured a catchy lineup, but Driver is the first film he’s done, where it’s playlist is actually hardwired into the film itself!
It’s not just enough that Baby has to be listening to a particular track, but the film’s edits, the firing of guns, and much more, largely keep time to the music being played. Wright even has some fun with this during a coffee-run Baby performs, with a single-take camera move that has some excellent blink-and-you’ll-miss-them-the-first-time song lyrics, graffiti’d onto some surrounding buildings and telephone poles.
The music is often a key to the various car chases and heists that Baby pulls with a slew of other characters. Each one has their own specific eccentricities, with the most violent being Jamie Foxx’s Bats. He’s the guy with a hair-trigger, and his ‘off-the-cuff attitude,’ makes him a character you quickly grow to dread, when the camera lingers on him.
Of the other cohorts Baby works with, two of interest are Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzales). Buddy is quick to catch our attention, seeing as he’s the only crew member who seems willing to engage with Baby on a musical level (they soon start comparing playlists at one point!). However, his and Darling’s relationship, almost serves as a cautionary tale of ‘love-on-the-run,’ much like Bonnie and Clyde.
Like Darling is to Buddy, a young waitress named Deborah begins to become a part of Baby’s life. Lily James plays her character as the yang to Baby’s yin. She doesn’t have a big role in the film, but James’ waitress is just as integral to Baby making a change to his life, as Scott Pilgrim was upon seeing Ramona Flowers (however, Deborah doesn’t turn into a battle-warrior like Ramona does). James’ role is brief, but enjoyable.
Reuniting with cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix, Scott Pilgrim vs The World), Wright shows that his crew has an eye for capturing and editing action coherently (in a world where quick edits ala Paul Greengrass and Michael Bay are the norm). There’s method to the madness in many an action scene, and the best part is, we are never at a loss regarding where to focus our attention.
While the concept and story are a new and original journey for Wright, the underlying theme of growing up that has permeated through his other films can soon be recognized by ‘veteran viewers.’ However, the twists and turns that are thrown along the film’s path, keep it from ever getting boring. Plus, while there are a few humorous moments, Driver may be one of the more serious films that the director has ever done. There are some points where Wright just had me on edge regarding what would happen to Baby, or Debora.
Wright’s films have not been the easiest for most American theatergoers to zero in on. Even 13 years after Shaun of the Dead, he has yet to have a film that has gone mainstream beyond the small amassings of cult followers to his work.
While Hot Fuzz was his way of paying tribute to his love of action films, Baby Driver appears to be his ode to chase and heist films, notably the ones in which the main character, struggles with keeping their moral compass from cracking.
Final Grade: A- (Final Thoughts: “Baby Driver” is that rare, ‘original’ film buried within a summer of blockbuster sequels, that just delivers as a smart-yet-fast action ride. It is definitely one of Edgar Wright’s less-humorous stories, but it’s musical journey following Baby on his road to self-discovery, is one that is both fast, smart, and an emotional rollercoaster ride.)