Synopsis: A quirky, dysfunctional family’s road trip is upended when they find themselves in the middle of the robot apocalypse and suddenly become humanity’s unlikeliest last hope.
Stars: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Michael Rianda, Eric André, Olivia Colman, Blake Griffin, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, Charlyne Yi, Conan O’Brien, Sasheer Zamata, Elle Mills, Jay Pharoah, Alex Hirsch, Griffin McElroy
Directors: Michael Rianda & Jeff Rowe
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Were this a time when we were back seeing movies in theaters, a film like The Mitchells vs The Machines (which was originally set to be released in 2020) would have been one that made me glad for stadium seating that allows me a nice distance between the screen and my seat. There’s so much going on in the movie that it often becomes an overwhelming mash of color, ideas, and sound. As a child, it would have served to stimulate a number of my senses in just the way the animators at Sony meant to but as I get older, I find that these mile-a-minute delirium exercises put a serious crimp in the overall way I absorb the story. That means the performances land with a little less oomph and the sweetness at the heart of the screenplay from writer/directors Michael Rianda & Jeff Rowe can’t quite get its hands in a firm enough grasp at your heartstrings to tug away whenever it wants to.
It’s definitely not for lack of trying, don’t get me wrong. Rianda & Rowe are willing to go to great lengths and expend copious amounts of energy and animation to send home the message about the importance of family and, more pointedly, family time. In this ever-expanding world of technology when it can be easy for us to self-isolate, families spend less quality time together than ever before and it becomes an effort to get everyone (parents included) out of their “screens” and involved with one another. In Rianda & Rowe’s brightly hued world, a service known as PAL (voiced on the mainframe by Olivia Colman, The Father) is installed on nearly every phone and also into many of the machines the country uses on a daily basis. Think of it as Alexa from Amazon, just with a wider net and a much more sensitive skin that’s easily rankled.
Katie Mitchell has a number of PAL powered devices and for good reason, she’s a budding filmmaker that’s been at work since she was a small child making movies involving her family and dog. As she has grown older, she feels like she doesn’t fit into the small-town life and craves a creative community of like-minded individuals (note the rainbow-pin on her jacket and later references to her relationship with Jade) that speak her language. More than anything, her once inseparable bond with her dad Rick (Danny McBride, Sausage Party) has frayed and father and daughter barely know each other anymore, much to the dismay of mom Linda (Maya Rudolph, The Way Way Back).
When tensions rise the night before Katie is set to leave for college, Rick makes a terrible error in judgement and decides to make up for it by gathering the family (including always-worried brother Aaron) and road-tripping his only daughter off to school instead of having Katie fly out there on her own. A bad idea at first, it proves to be a stroke of genius because the family is together when a new model of PAL is released, causing the previous version to erupt in a jealous rage. Using a virus to take over her replacements, she begins to enslave the humans in a giant prison. However there’s one family that won’t go down without a fight, one that’s rediscovered their strength as a team when put through a series of high-stakes battles with bots.
It’s never quite clear to me what endgame PAL was after but it doesn’t really matter in the end. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is about watching a family that has drifted apart find their way back to one another when put into a perilous situation. I may question how young children would react to some frightening situations of appliances coming to life and attacking them and just the overall thought of electronic world domination, but it’s delivered wrapped in such a buoyant bow it’s hard to fault anyone involved too much. (I’m easily swayed, clearly.) Running long at nearly two hours, there’s a lot of story packed in that wound up feeling repetitive and padded for time…that might be good for a theatrical release but when you’re at home I’m always in favor of a shorter sit for the family-oriented flicks.
Despite the presence of a talented comedian like Rudolph and someone that likely had a ball making this like Colman, the voice work is strangely muted here. There’s so much in motion around everyone that it’s odd for there not to be any standout among the voices heard. Even two rogue robots voiced by Beck Bennett (Zoolander 2) and Conan O’Brien (The Lego Batman Movie) that wind up working with the Mitchells sound interchangeable throughout. I kept waiting for some spark to be lit, and while Colman comes close and Rudolph finds it late in the film when her character hilariously finds her inner warrior the movie comes to a close with barely any embers glowing.
For Netflix families that haven’t subscribed to Disney+ or Apple,+ which have had several impressive animated films over the past few months, there is now a viable option for entertainment in The Mitchells vs The Machines. It’s fast, loud, and firmly a movie of today, but it will surely catch not just the eye of your kids but probably yours as well. Not only are there positive lessons to be taken away from the sweet-natured heart of the film but its animation is stunning.