I’m not the type of person to shout from the rooftops that animation is underrated and should be taken more seriously, but I do believe that is true and I enjoy a good animated movie when I see one. This has been especially true for me over the last seven or so years as Phil Lord and Chris Miller have have appeared on the scene.
Lord and Miller’s first movie was 2009’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which, while very good, isn’t doing anything particularly new or unique visually. But their 2014 followup animated movie (21 Jump Street came in between), The Lego Movie, is an incredible feat of humor, heart, and a new type of animation. It showed their ability to create something unique yet familiar. They followed this a few years later in 2018 with their producer credits on the highly-acclaimed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which also boasted a unique animation style for a mainstream animated film. In a world where Dreamworks and Illumination seem to be trying their hardest to do a Pixar imitation visually, it’s great to get a mainstream movie that just looks different than the norm.
Enter, The Mitchells vs the Machines, written and directed by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe and produced by Lord and Miller. This movie which recently premiered on Netflix, has a unique visual style. It looks like a mix of traditional, hand-drawn animation and 3D computer animation. And for a film about finding your own artistic voice, its unique look is perfect.
Even with this movie’s humor and great animation, what makes it work so well is its messaging. I’ve seen several movies lately that try to do too much with the themes they take on, which leaves them falling short overall because they can’t devote enough time to a main idea. But The Mitchells vs the Machines comments on family, growing up, personal growth, expressing yourself through art, and our relationship to technology. And each of these ideas feels like it gets its a fair amount of time to be explored.
Themes of family or growing up can feel pretty ubiquitous for an animated movie like this, but the way it’s worked into the film’s setup of a robot uprising is what makes it stand out. The Mitchells are a dysfunctional family in which the daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson) can’t wait to get away to college. She’s been making movies since she was little and it’s the way she knows how to express herself best. Her dad Rick (Danny McBride) just doesn’t get her passions and not-so-subtly wishes she would find other ways to express herself. He doubts that she’ll be able to make a living off the absurdist humor in the movies she makes. So on the day that Katie is supposed to fly off to college in California, Rick decides that they’re going to take a family road trip to drop her off instead. The mother, Linda (Maya Rudolph), son Aaron (co-director Mike Rianda), and their dog, Monchi also join the trip.
The family is forced together in the tight space that is their car, which exacerbates any problems Katie and Rick had. Rick is sad that the daughter that he once knew seems to be a whole new person that he can’t understand and he worries that he messed something up in their relationship, making it unfixable. He spends most of the movie going over the top to try to get back into his daughter’s good graces, and with the typical family movie ups and downs, The Mitchells vs the Machines is able to toe a very specific line that handles familial bonds and the capacity to change, both for the daughter and the father. I won’t go into any of the specifics for the sake of spoilers, but suffice it to say that the emotions in this movie are poignant and relevant.
Of course, I also love the way the movie deals with expressing yourself through art. Katie is a filmmaker and that’s the best way she knows how to get out what she’s feeling. It really hammers home the concept of the power and the importance of expressing yourself in such a way as well as the need for people to be open-minded and ready to think about the art they’re confronted with. Rick often dismisses Katie’s movies out of hand just because he’s always been an outdoorsman and has never been one for watching or making movies. But it’s at the end when he finally allows himself to look past the silliness and goofiness of the movies that his daughter makes that he’s able to understand that she’s baring her soul when she creates these movies. When we create, so much of who we are goes into the thing we’re creating. So when we aren’t able to use our words or actions to show how we feel, it’s often what we create that actually shows who we are on the inside.
The film also gives a wink and a nod to the fact that companies like Amazon or Apple have the ability and resources to change the world in a negative way if they go too far — whether or not it’s specifically through a robot uprising — yet they still employ and give a platform to people who create good art. We basically live through our screens these days and while, yes, there are lots of problems with this including lack of face to face connection, there are also nuance and positive effects we may not notice at face value. It’s not the movie’s main theme or the idea it’s exploring, but it’s there in multiple instances and definitely provides a lot to think about.
It’s this self-awareness that makes The Mitchells vs the Machines so special. On top of all the great themes and messages I’ve already described, it’s an absolutely hilarious movie. There are lots of one-liners and physical gags, but I think I could watch this movie 20 more times and not notice all of the little jokes and Easter eggs that are placed in the background, unless I went frame by frame looking at each part of the screen. It gives the movie a high rewatch value as well as an overall engaging quality that’s tough to look away from. It’s still fairly early in the year and not many movies have had wide releases to be in the “Best of the Year” conversation, but I’d be shocked if December and January roll around and The Mitchells vs the Machines isn’t at least in my top 10.