When you watch a Disney/Pixar computer-animated film, just a glance at the glossy, plasticine visual style is enough to tell you where in the world of Hollywood animation you are. Not that the Mouse House doesn’t continue to push the envelope visually to eye-popping new levels of sophistication and technical achievement. But the envelope-pushing is all in more or less the same direction, so to speak. The destinations may range from ancient Polynesia and Southeast Asia to the inner workings of the mind and even the frontiers of life and death, but it’s all very clearly in the same visual multiverse.
By contrast, part of what has made power producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, over the last dozen years, the most exciting force in Hollywood animation today is that not only are their original cartoons — Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, The LEGO Movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and now The Mitchells vs. the Machines — all above average or better, not one of them looks anything like any of the others.
In some ways The Mitchells vs. the Machines harks back to Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Most obviously, it’s another goofy, rollicking techno-apocalypse centered on a bumpy parent-child relationship between an awkward, gifted youngster and a handy but technophobic dad. We even meet Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson), an aspiring filmmaker, the same way we met Cloudy’s young inventor, Flint Lockwood: standing up in front of skeptical grade-school peers, facing scornful laughter while trying to show the world something new, in this case her ideas for absurdist short films starring her family’s wall-eyed pug, Monchi. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that Katie’s dad, Rick (Danny McBride), is another beefy, old-school man’s man whose genuine love of his offspring is encumbered by communication problems and lack of understanding. For that matter, Into the Spider-Verse’s Miles Morales had not dissimilar issues with his father, a by-the-book police officer.
Naturally, saving the world from the robot apocalypse — next-generation super-Alexas turned against humanity by the fury of an A.I. scorned — is going to depend on bringing the semi-estranged father and child back together again. (Not to shortchange co-writer and director Mike Rianda or his writing partner Jeff Rowe, but the precedents are what they are.)
The family dynamic is bigger and more complicated this time. The Mitchells are an archetypal family of four, with capable Linda (Maya Rudolph), first-grade teacher and mom, and Katie’s dinosaur-obsessed younger brother Aaron (co-writer and director Mike Rianda). Although Katie is the protagonist, the heart of the story is the family dynamic, giving the film’s whimsical adventure something of a Spy Kids/Incredibles vibe — the difference being, as Katie pessimistically puts it in a flash-forward prologue, that “most action heroes have a lot of strengths … my family only has weaknesses.”
No wonder Katie just wants to get away and go to film school in L.A., where she hopes, at long last, to find her people. Katie’s film-student aspirations are what give The Mitchells its unique visual identity. All things being equal, the goggle-eyed, rubber-limbed Mitchells and their richly textured surroundings might seem somewhat like an upgrade of Flint Lockwood’s Cloudy world — until this world is festooned and stylized with homespun indie film-school exuberance. 2-D animated glosses, puppets, freeze-frames, title captions, and other embellishments — a subjective approach the filmmakers call “Katie-vision” — offer incredibly dense emotional commentary on what is already a hyperactive movie. The result is exhilarating and possibly overwhelming, but certainly evokes the same loving attention to detail that Katie brings to her own low-budget efforts. (Rianda, like most U.S. animators, pays homage to Hayao Miyazaki, but no one in Hollywood has the slightest interest in making the kind of deliberately paced, non-frenetic animated films that the legendary Japanese master is best known for.)
The “misfit protagonist” trope is one of the most prevalent in contemporary family animation, but this film goes a step further: The Mitchells are an entire misfit family. I don’t recall the exact circumstances occasioning the flashback with the Mitchells running naked and covered in dirt through their startled, Instagram-perfect neighbors’ backyard, but it’s the sort of humiliating predicament that seems to happen a lot to this family. “We’re here because we don’t think like normal people,” Rick says at one point with a bit more optimism than his daughter. “The Mitchells have always been weird … and that’s what makes us great.”
This line raises an interesting question: Is this family just dysfunctional and quirky, or are they neurodivergent? Aaron is clearly autistic (defining pastime: going through the phone book, line by line, and cold-calling people to ask if they want to talk about dinosaurs). But what about Rick, whose love of tools is so extreme that a No. 3 Robertson-head non-slip screwdriver is his go-to gift for everything: anniversaries, sweet 16 birthdays, even tooth-fairy presents? What about the fact that both Katie and her dad are so bad at relating to one another that other family members literally prompt them through conversations with each other with dialogue written on cue cards? What about the fact that all the Mitchells find sustained eye contact difficult, even painful? Granted, it’s framed in terms of screen addiction, and it’s an early example of how Rick — who wants family members to put down their screens for once and just be together at mealtime — sometimes has a valid point. This is another Lord & Miller move: Dad isn’t always wrong. But still.
Now, was Dad wrong to cancel Katie’s plane tickets to college and embark instead on a cross-country family road trip to L.A. in the hopes of bringing the family together? At first, Katie is horrified, but when peacemaking Linda gently leans on her to recognize that Rick is trying and to make the best of it, Katie good-naturedly goes along with it in her own creative way. Clearly this is a family that can be saved. Rick definitely has a valid point, when the robot apocalypse goes down and the Mitchells somehow escape capture, about the impracticality of Katie’s cartoonish action-movie scheme to take on the robots and save the world using an A.I. kill code they don’t have. Until, that is, the kill code actually falls into their hands, because this is an action-movie cartoon. (Into the Spider-Verse fans: We have a goober.)
In Cloudy and Spider-Verse, reconciliation between father and child turned in part on a crucial paternal expression of confidence in the child’s ability: encouragement empowering the child, at his lowest point, to rise up and overcome the challenges ahead. Here The Mitchells charts its own path. It’s Katie’s inspirational speech that galvanizes her father into action, instead of vice versa — but her encouraging words are compromised by self-interest, and that comes back to bite them all. In the end, Katie has to rally without support from her dad — and Rick’s lowest point is where he finally understands, from one of his daughter’s videos, what he’s withheld from her.
Dad’s redemption in Katie’s eyes comes instead from two sources. Above all, she comes to appreciate the sacrifices that Rick has made for love of this family and learns to give him the benefit of the doubt and recognize when he’s trying. She also comes to an awareness that some of the things he’s actually good at are part of who she is. Linda, of course, is the one who ultimately holds the family together, and even the robot apocalypse is no match for the unstoppable power of mother love. Aaron and even Monchi the pug also contribute in their own ways, because The Mitchells is ultimately the group-huggest and feel-goodest of feel-good, group-hug family films, and there’s nothing wrong with that. (Even Silicon Valley guru Mark Bowman [Eric Andre], who’s responsible for the robot apocalypse, is ultimately more shallow and naive than malicious.)
In a movie jam-packed with cinematic Easter eggs, the “villain” — an homage both to 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Terminator — ultimately embodies disillusionment with relationships and family. Family relationships are hard, Katie admits, but makes an eloquent, heartfelt case that they’re worth it. The villain wasn’t moved, but I was.
P.S. In a film in which so much happens very quickly and so much will go over the heads of many viewers, even attentive adults may miss the implication in an early mid-credits coda of a breathless string of questions from Linda for Katie that reveals another layer of Katie’s differentness: She has a romantic interest whose preferred pronoun appears to be “her.” (Sharp-eyed viewers may also note that Katie wears a rainbow pin.) The line is intended, of course, for those who will consider the film’s themes of acceptance and inclusion enhanced by it. Others will reject the whole film over this one line. For what it’s worth, I’m not in either camp. The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a good family film, all things considered.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.