Sitting atop the expanding heap of streaming services, Netflix is a major, accessible platform, but it hardly guarantees a wide audience. There’s always the chance for something to take the world by storm, but with their commitment to add at least one new movie in every week of 2021, a lot of their releases come and go with hardly a whisper of attention. Case in point: The Mitchells vs The Machines, a new film from Sony Pictures Animation that would’ve slipped my radar if I wasn’t looking for something to review this weekend. With little marketing behind it and a trailer that suggests another overactive animated comedy, it’s easy for people to scroll right past it and never know they’re missing out on something that’s basically bottled fun.
Aspiring filmmaker Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) has just been accepted to the college of her dreams in faraway California, and after years of clashing with her tech-averse father Rick (Danny McBride), she is eager to leave the nest. Worried that he could lose his daughter forever, Rick makes a last-ditch attempt at bonding by switching out her solo airplane ride with a cross-country family road trip, and Katie’s mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) and younger brother Aaron (Mike Rianda) do their best to help the two reconcile. Along the way, however, their plan hits a small snag: a misbegotten product launch from Silicon Valley giant PAL Labs causes the world’s technology to turn on humanity, leaving it to the dysfunctional Mitchells to prevent the apocalypse.
On top of the great voice-cast (which also includes Eric Andre, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, and a delightfully villainous Olivia Colman), there’s some significant comedic talent behind this film: Rianda (who wrote and directed alongside his voice performance) and co-director Jeff Rowe were writers on the popular animated series Gravity Falls, while producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller continue a hot streak that includes The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. In keeping with those titles, The Mitchells vs The Machines is as smartly written as it is hilarious, landing joke after joke without ever sacrificing the development of its characters. Much like the best of Pixar, it never loses sight of the human truths at the core of its story and covers a surprising amount of emotional ground (Lord & Miller seem to have a talent for stories about children reconnecting with their dads).
But what truly makes The Mitchells vs The Machines stand out for me is its unusual level of internet literacy; rarely have I seen a movie incorporate today’s digital culture into its storytelling as naturally and intelligently as this one does. Deeply interested in exploring how technology shapes today’s world, Rianda bakes it into just about every element of his film, from plot, character, and theme to the humor and visual style. Even as the story satirizes its dangers, the colorful busyness of the animation celebrates its potential for creative expression, and these warring sensibilities fuel the Mitchells’ intergenerational conflict. The solution to this, the film suggests, lies in focusing more on how we form relationships through technology rather than our relationships with it, and I can only hope that other movies learn from its example.
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5