by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTORS: Michael Rianda, Jeff Rowe
CAST: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Eric André, Olivia Colman
MY RATING: 9/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 97% Certified Fresh
PLOT: 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.
Discovering The Mitchells vs the Machines feels like finding a discarded lottery ticket that someone threw away. Intended for theatrical release in 2021, it was instead sold to Netflix when that became unfeasible due to Covid. I have no way of knowing how many people may have streamed it, but it didn’t exactly take the world by storm. I happened to find a discounted copy on sale at Target some time ago and have only just now gotten around to watching it. Written and directed by the writers/creators of the acclaimed animated series Gravity Falls and produced by the minds behind the Jump Street reboots, the two Lego Movies, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, this movie is a home run that feels like it has been all but forgotten by the general public. If you’re a member of that section of the public, and you like great animated films, do yourself a favor and carve out some Netflix viewing time. You won’t regret it.
The Mitchells are a mildly dysfunctional family with their hearts in the right places, but their quirkiness gets the best of them sometimes. Aspiring filmmaker Katie Mitchell (voice of Abbi Jacobson) has been accepted into a film school in California, but instead of flying, her father, Rick (Danny McBride), decides to make one last effort at connecting with his daughter by taking the whole family on a road trip in a mid-90s station wagon whose model name is sensible. As in, that’s the name of the model, the mid-90s Sensible.
The mom, Linda (Maya Rudolph) tries to act as a buffer between Katie and Rick, when she’s not trying to get her family to act more “normal” like their all-too-perfect next-door neighbors (voiced by John Legend and Chrissy Tiegen). Katie’s younger brother, Aaron, is so obsessed with dinosaurs he calls random people from the phone book: “Hi, would you like to talk to me about dinosaurs? No? Okay, thank you.” They have a pug dog named Monchi that apparently has the IQ of a carrot and looks like he was bred in a bakery. (“Bred” in a bakery…get it? Don’t worry, you will.) Put them all in close quarters and you’d be lucky to get them to survive into the next county, let alone halfway across the country. And don’t forget that robot apocalypse mistakenly engineered by a tech genius (Eric André) who took the concept of obsolescence one step too far.
What follows is a Pixar-esque journey into self-discovery, industry and pop culture in-jokes, and genuine emotional moments. Any quibbles I have with the movie have to do with certain physical logistics. I know I shouldn’t bring the concept of real-world physics into an animated film that includes killer microwave ovens and ominous toasters, but there were a couple of moments that defied logic when everything else was doing so well. I won’t spoil them, but they’re there.
But that’s a minor, minor quibble. TMvTM is so delightful and fun, it doesn’t matter.
I loved the visual style of this movie, recalling the eye-catching pyrotechnics in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. To emphasize certain moments during the film, the filmmakers added little “flair” on the edges of the screen, or emitting from certain characters like in a comic book, but instead of feeling “comic-book-y”, it felt like a little glimpse into the mind of Katie, the main character, whose mind is constantly in “making-a-movie” mode.
I loved the “big-bad” in the movie because it’s based on the world’s ever-increasing reliance on portable electronic devices. At one point, the villain shuts down the wi-fi on a global scale. Humanity predictably loses its mind within seconds. (My favorite example of this meltdown showed a woman pleading with someone to take a picture of her food.) Do I advocate for a complete erasure of our devices? Absolutely not. But I am on the dad’s side when he insists on no devices at the dinner table. Everything in moderation, folks.
Underneath the flashy style and effective villains, though, there is a real human story about the father’s desperate need to reconnect with his daughter before she leaves for college. (Indeed, the film’s original title was Connected.) The filmmakers took a lesson from Pixar’s playbook and made very sure to include some tender moments and heartfelt speeches that never once felt contrived or schmaltzy. I don’t have kids, but if I did, I could easily imagine myself shedding a tear when the dad watched old home movies of himself and Katie when she was a toddler. And I loved the story behind the wooden moose. The story is diligent about giving everyone a solid, believable back story that fills in the blanks without resorting to lengthy flashbacks. Not an easy task.
As hidden animated treasures go, this goes on the list with Boy and the World and A Town Called Panic. It’s streaming on Netflix, so chances are you have access to it right now, so…what are you waiting for?