Netflix animated feature ‘The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ offers a comical take on scary tech apocalypses while keeping family at the heart of the storytelling
The advent of autonomous technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and robotics has taken over the OTTs with titles such as Black Mirror, Upload, The Social Dilemma. The most recent release within this burgeoning genre is animated film The Mitchells vs The Machines, co-directed by Jeff Rowe and Michael Rianda, which may not be as dark.
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The film follows high school graduate Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson, Disenchantment) who feels like the black sheep in her family due to her unconventional filmmaking ambitions. Eager to get away from her small Michigan hometown, Katie is urged by her father Rick (Danny McBride, The Angry Birds Movie) to go on a family-bonding road trip along with mother Linda (Maya Rudolph, Luca), younger brother Aaron (Rianda) and their dopey pug Monchi, all the way to Los Angeles to drop her off at college. Katie is stricken by this as she misses out on orientation week and is seen swiping through social media and experiencing FOMO watching her classmates throw dorm parties.
The Mitchells hit several bumps along their cross-country road trip; predictable ones include family fights in the car and food poisoning, while remarkable ones include an apocalyptic revenge of the robots on the entire world.
… wait, what was that last bit?
Let’s rewind: while the Mitchells are traipsing across America, tech conglomerate PAL run by hipster luminary Mark Bowman (Eric André) hosts a keynote event where a robotic AI is announced as the company’s new operating system that everyone has to use. So goodbye to old-school voice assistants, hello to a sentient robot that learns your daily routine and becomes your live-in PA. How on earth could this possibly go wrong? Well, during the event, the robots go into self-pilot mode and start snatching people and sending them to who-knows-where, ultimately taking over the world.
While watching this keynote take a turn for the worst, it is undeniable how much shade is being thrown at Apple. The similarities are undeniable: the names of the companies, the CEO that wears a simple shirt that likely costs thousands of dollars, smartphones that start updating operating systems at random, controlling whole home and work ecosystems, a keynote event with the fanaticism of a music festival, the open preference for power over consumer privacy.
Of course, the possibilities of how far technology can push humanity over the edge is explored comically and thoughtfully in equal measures, to the point that PAL’s omnipresent chipsets are embedded into a massive Furby army which the Mitchells have to fight off at a mall. Thankfully, the film is careful to neither go on tangents nor venture into parable territory.
Along the way, we meet many fun characters including surprise appearances from celebrity couple Chrissy Tiegen and John Legend as Insta-perfect yoga-loving couple, Hailey and Jim Posey, whom Linda fervently aspires to be. Plus, voicing a host of robots are Conan O’Brien as Glaxxon 5000, Fred Armisen as Deborahbot 5000, and Blake Griffin as PAL MAX Prime.
However, the scene-stealer in The Mitchells vs The Machines has to be Olivia Colman as PAL. Her voice is unmistakable and as many of us are experiencing The Crown withdrawal symptoms, it is a delight to hear ‘Queen Lizzy’ as a rejected operating system who was literally thrown in the trash.
As much as character interactions are engaging and meaningful, the wild and varied animation styles complement this storytelling in a beautiful way. The makers combine a number of colour-rich aesthetics: watercolour-inspired, photo-realistic, and 2-D comic book, to name a few. All these styles have not been thrown in thoughtlessly, but rather leveraged to bring out Katie’s own wacky style of filmmaking and editing. Another recent feature film that comprises more than one animation style is Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon — perhaps this inventiveness marks a new future for animated films in general.
Then there are the occasional home movies from Katie’s childhood, reminding us that this is still a story about a family. These simply-shot home movies are tear-jerking moments but also add pause to the evolving relationship between Katie and her family. I could not help but think, ‘no matter how weird I find my family, the Mitchells are out there being even weirder.’
Though The Mitchells vs The Machines is a fun time for the whole family – much needed in the current time of scarce new content on OTT platforms – it does feel like it lasts a touch longer than required. I personally would have been solid with a 90-minute run time. The film has a lot to tackle within itself – family drama, independence, career aspirations, the volatility of tech, and more – so the extra run time resolved a lot of those loose ends.
Ultimately at the core, directors Rianda and Rowe made sure this film was made with a lot of heart and thought, making it a must-watch for a cosy evening.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines is currently streaming on Netflix
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