“Families can be hard, but they’re so worth fighting for. They might be one of the only things that are.”
Family animated films are always reaching out in bold new directions, with the ever-evolving technology falling at the hands and brains of talented artists who want to create worlds that are beyond our wildest imaginations. For years, Disney Pixar and Studio Ghibli have been the powerhouses leading the charge in both production and storytelling, with other studios like Dreamworks nipping at their heels to prove they have what it takes. In 2019, Sony Pictures Imageworks brought us Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse, an animated film so bold both in terms of style and of story that it looked to shake up the landscape of animated cinema forever. That same studio now brings us The Mitchells vs. The Machines, marking a move to cement that position as the newest animation powerhouse… but did they do it?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is yeeeeeeees. The animation in this film is undeniably beautiful; blending different styles of animation in a way not really seen before in cinema, and building on the visual effects first created for Into The Spiderverse, while establishing a notably different artistic tone and style from the comic book inspired artistic direction of that film. For an even longer answer, read on:
The night before aspiring filmmaker Katie Mitchell (Abby Jacobson) is due to fly out to start film school, her technophobe father Rick (Danny McBride) accidentally breaks her laptop, which threatens to fracture their tense relationship forever. Hoping to fix the damage, he cancels her flights and embarks on a family cross-country roadtrip to deliver Katie to college, bringing along Kate’s mother Linda (Maya Rudoplh), brother Aaron (Michael Rianda) and family dog Monchi (Doug The Pug) for the ride. Meanwhile, tech billionaire Mark Bowman (Eric Andre) makes a fatal mistake when launching his new AI digital assistant that results in an army of advanced robots making moves to take over the world – a world which The Mitchells must try and save.
It bears repeating that the animation of this film is beautiful. As noted above, the animation team blended multiple animation styles together in order to create a unique and identifiable look for this film. The Mitchell family and the more natural elements of the piece are animated using a digital equivalent of traditional 2D animation, in a style that mimics the watercolour animation by the likes of Disney in their golden age films. The result is a smooth and consistent tone, presenting a naturalistic style that is immediately familiar to the eye, despite being obviously created through digital animation as opposed to hand-drawn. This style is juxtaposed in two ways; the film makes surprising use of real-world footage and stock 2D imagery for brief gags and flashback sequences that reflect Katie’s more personal emotional moments, a technique which is somewhat jarring against the smooth animation, but effective in punching home the point they’ve been inserted to make. The second difference is in the animation of the AI elements, which discards the relaxed watercolour style in favour of a sleeker, colder and more polished animation style that helps the robots stand out against the more traditional backgrounds, and allows for environmental differences as the narrative progresses that demonstrates the difference between the natural and unnatural events of the story.
The stellar animation is supported by equally stellar performances and an excellent story, all driven by the Mitchell family unit. While Katie essentially acts as our point of view character for the narrative, every member of the Mitchell family is as important to the story as the others, and the performances of the central cast reflect that. Abby Jacobson shines as Katie, bringing an energetic and youthful exuberance in equal measure to abject embarrassment and disgust as the story requires. Her interactions with Michael Rianda’s Aaron in particular are exceptional, effortlessly portraying the complicated love-hate relationship that naturally occurs between many teenage siblings; as infuriated with Aaron’s naivete as she is protective of him, the sequences of them together are a delight. Aaron himself is a joy, and while the whole cast has their fair share comedy moments, his are the most memorable; with Rianda bringing humour out of every live with Aaron’s ridiculous puberty-stricken voice, building on top of an adorably socially-awkward nerd that leans into a number of stereotypes in exactly the right way. Danny McBride and Maya Rudolph bring a lot to the table as Rick and Linda as well, and while the kids are more at the forefront of the narrative, their contribution to the action and to the family is invaluable. Rick’s stubbornness and old-fashioned attitudes create a perfect grounding for the family drama, while also being a key component of what helps the family survive on their own at various points of the story; and Linda’s more kind and considerate concern for her family as a whole keeps everyone working together in a sensible fashion (though she does also get an incredibly badass sequence in the third act which is an absolute joy to see). McBride and Rudolph bring a lot of heart to these characters, and I was particularly impressed to see McBride take a step outside of his usual adult comedy schtick and apply his years of skill and comedic timing to a family comedy – the same can be said for Eric Andre, who brings a lot of that same kind of chaotic experience to Mark Bowman, and manages to syphon personality traits from all of our favourite billionaire tech CEOs into his performance.
The rest of the cast shines in their supporting roles. Fred Aremisen and Beck Bennett provide the voices for the robots of the film, both villainous and otherwise; and both draw a lot of comedy from the portrayal of these rogue AI machines, building on the great jokes in the script from screenwriter and directors Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe. Academy award winner Olivia Coleman is on deck as the main villain of the piece, the AI digital assistant who causes the machine uprising, and her years of work in comedy are put to excellent use here; but in a way that also allows her to continue increasing the threat in the narrative as well.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines has another boon to its story, and that being representation. This piece features numerous characters of differing ethnic backgrounds, and Katie is written to be openly LGBT; but neither of those facts are used to directly influence the plot, especially not the conflict between Katie and Rick. This is great to see and so important for young LGBT people, who so often have their identity played out on screen as being a contentious matter in relation to the narrative; but here it is simply demonstrated as being a normal fact about a central character to shape her as a person, and not derail this riotous comedy by adding elements which frankly do not need to be there, and I am personally very excited to see it become a more prevalent feature in many movies to come.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines is a visually striking, deeply funny and highly entertaining comedy that is perfect family movie night; no matter what shape your family might take. With an energetic, action-packed and clever narrative, and unnecessarily high calibre voice cast and some of the most interesting and well-executed animation of recent times, it would be a mistake to ignore this film – I recommend that you watch it as soon as you possibly can.