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Review: The Mitchells vs. the Machines Takes on Technology with Humor and Pathos

While the film certainly lays out the dangers of technology run amok, it also sees its power to connect people.

The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Photo: Netflix

There’s a lot going on in The Mitchells vs. the Machines, even outside the chaos that ensues in the wake of a robot uprising. Successfully fusing an apocalyptic comedy with a tender family drama is a tall order for any film, and in the opening act of Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe’s hyper-stylized animated feature, the two main storylines do seem rather disconnected from one another. In fact, the small-scale family squabbles between a nature-loving father, Rick (Danny McBride), and his film school-bound teenage daughter, Katie (Abbi Jacobson), is so at odds with the grandiosity of tech genius Mark Bowman (Eric André) accidentally setting off a doomsday scenario after upsetting his Siri-esque A.I. program, Pal (Olivia Colman), that it can feel as if you’re watching two entirely different films.

The father-daughter dynamic at the center of The Mitchells vs. the Machines concerns the overprotective Rick’s worries about Katie’s artistic ambitions, namely that they’ll lead to disappointment and failure. It’s a reasonable concern, though it’s Rick’s seeming indifference to the quirky short films that his daughter makes—and starring the family dog, Monchi—that leads Katie to believe that her father has no faith in her abilities. These scenes are familiar enough that they could have been lifted from any number of other coming-of-age films, and they only feel more low-stakes in the midst of a potential Armageddon.

Once the Mitchells are swept into harm’s way, and become the last family standing against humanity’s newly declared overlords, the film shifts gears into an action mode that nicely gels with its kinetic, and at times malleable, style, enlivening the initially rote depiction of familial conflict. Rick and Katie’s strained relationship remains the heart of the story, but it’s explored less through tiresome arguments than within action set pieces and brief flashbacks that reveal how their bond grew weaker over the years and led to feelings of resentment on both sides.

When the family takes to the road to activate a kill code that will shut down the robot uprising, the offbeat humor and lovingly crafted nature of Katie’s amateur filmmaking becomes the guiding force of The Mitchells vs. the Machines. The array of 2D and 3D animation styles that the filmmakers employ alongside live-action YouTube clips creates the sense that the Mitchells are in the type of film that Katie herself would likely make in film school. Little details that the filmmakers include—from celebrity pet Doug the Pug providing the awkward snorts and whines for Mochi to little throwaway jokes like a reference to actor Eric André’s “Legalize Ranch” sketches—help to further flesh out the film’s layered, intricate aural and visual design, and lend a distinctive weirdness to its family-friendly humor.

Given the film’s commentary on our over-reliance on technology, one may expect Rick’s anti-tech stance to play a role in mending his family’s rifts. But Rianda and Rowe present this aspect evenhandedly, as an inevitable part of a generational divide, neither chiding Katie for her abundant use of technology in her art and only lightly mocking Rick for being so out of touch with the times. Indeed, Katie eventually learns why Rick gave up on his dream of living in the house he built in the mountains, and his reasons for worrying so much about her future as an artist thanks to technology. While The Mitchells vs. the Machines certainly lays out the dangers of technology run amok, it also sees its power to connect people, with different outlooks and from different generations, in meaningful, even healing, ways.

Cast: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Olivia Colman, Maya Rudolph, Eric Andre, Charlyne Yi, Sasheer Zamata, Fred Armisen, John Legend Director: Michael Rianda, Jeff Rowe Screenwriter: Michael Rianda, Jeff Rowe Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 113 min Rating: PG Year: 2021 Buy: Soundtrack

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