Trigger Warning for light, yet frequent strobing.
There’s something familiar about every aspect of new animated family adventure sci-fi comedy The Mitchells vs. The Machines. The animation style is complex and layered, which is to be expected from Sony Pictures Animation, the same studio behind the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). There are character beats that echo what we’ve seen in 2009’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, also a Sony Pictures Animation project. There are references to other films, songs, and countless other stupid little jokes that harken back to something you’ve seen or experienced. This may discourage some viewers from finding anything remotely original within Michael Rianda/Jeff Rowe co-written and co-directed film The Mitchells vs. The Machines, previously titled Connected before switching back to this, its original title. As we’ll examine within this review, the continuously referential film is structured this way on purpose, encouraging the audience to tap into and examine their own meme culture.
It’s the night before she flies out for filmmaking school in California and Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is on the verge of freedom. While she’ll miss her dinosaur-centric younger brother Aaron (Rianda) and Elementary teacher mother Linda (Maya Rudolph), it’s her once-close-but-now-unsupportive father Rick (Danny McBride) who she needs to get away from. Sensing that this might be his last chance to spend time with Katie, Rick cancels her plane ticket and packs the whole family into the car for a road trip to her destination. Though they try to make the most of it, the harder they try, the worse things seem to get. None of them could have predicted just how much worse it could get with a sudden revolt of the machines or that the Mitchells might be humanity’s only hope of survival. We might be screwed.
When most folks think of memes, they may think of Success Kid, Condescending Wonka, and Distracted Boyfriend. If they’re a little older, grumpy cat and nyan cat. Even older, there’s Numa Numa and lightsaber kid. Each of the digital-born memes took popular culture by storm until even luddites recognized them, even if not fully understanding where they come from. The script from Rianda and Rowe play with this a bit by offering moments in TMvTM that do the same thing. There’s a heart-removal gag like in Cloudy, there’s a scene staged (and audibly referenced) like Dawn of the Dead (1978), a use of Quincy Jones’s “Ironside” that’s sure to illicit a specific memory response, and others. Each of these moments (among others) pull out that shared experience, that recognition of similarity, which memes do via social construct and function. In the strictest sense, memes are cultural information that have jumped from a single small group to a larger group. You might not know the Numa Numa video, but if you heard “Live Your Life” by T.I. featuring Rihanna, those opening bars are unmistakable. Within the song itself, another meme can be heard when Rihanna sings “…got my mind on my money …”, a reference to Snoop Dogg’s 1993 “Gin & Juice.” Memes are, in many ways, a shorthand to communicate a shared experience. You hear a track, see an image, a style of dress, a frame of animation, and the intertextual meaning comes rushing toward you. This utilization of meme communication from Rianda and Rowe is just the macro view of their story.
The micro view looks at memes from their origin, beginning with the home. There’s no question that individuals are shaped by their community. What they like, what they value, how they see the world are shaped by the experiences they have with those around them. This isn’t just parents to children but the reverse. Parents are influenced just as much by what their children do as the other way around and this is where TMvTM really fires on all cylinders, creating an emotional tale at the heart of an action-adventure comedy. TMvTM initially wants you to think with the narrative conflict of daughter vs. father, but it incorporates how children come to see their parents as people. Take the aforementioned song “Live Your Life,” a track which has a special meaning in the relationship between Katie and Rick. That track was released in 2008 and Katie would’ve been a young child, too young to really understand the lyrics, which means that either Rick or Linda played the song for her, creating the intersection of shared interests that would take the form of a seminal familial moment. Though the film doesn’t explore who instigated the song into Katie’s life, there’s another aspect which is used to bring forward the idea that who Katie and Aaron know as their parents are limited in scope due to their roles as parents. The incorporation of the notion that parents are more than just progenitors just furthers the other notion from the narrative that Katie is more than who her parents think she is. We’re all complex individuals and TMvTM isn’t afraid to explore this. Rianda and Rowe just do it via a robot apocalypse.
It shouldn’t be a surprise coming from producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (of both Cloudy and Spider-Verse), but the end of the world looks *fantastic*. The center of the apocalypse has a Tron-esque futurism about it with beautiful magnetic-pink-purple look, while the robots themselves are a pearl white so that there’s no clash of beauty against form. Though fans of Rianda and Rowe’s work will recognize a bit of that Gravity Falls flair, the primarily cell-shaded/watercolor animation varies based on tone, character, and need, resulting in something less streamlined and more chaotic. Building off of the meme discussion above, the primary form of animation is, well, all of them as the visual design weaponizes Katie’s cinematic viewpoint to layer one form of animation onto another. In the opening sequence, Katie’s voiceover introduces the family in a trailer-like style, culminating in the title “Worst Family of All Time” plastered across the screen. In another scene, Katie is presented as surrounded by a combination of hand-drawn figures, each varying in style (life, emotive, line, and cartoon), each blending together to form a fiery-explosion of awesomeness around her as she speaks. The end result may appear like a “kitchen sink” approach, but it’s far more specific in its multimedia approach. This isn’t using all the animation and visual styles for the purpose of being wild and crazy, but to convey the specific perspective of filmmaker Katie. This is her story, even as it shifts its POV to the other characters, so everything will be viewed through her lens. Her’s just so happens to possess a cinematic flair.
Between the push for self-examination in relation to others and the wildly shifting animation, TMvTM is a wild ride. It’s sweet, heartfelt, and never once feels dishonest. Some of this is due to the power of the memes themselves, endearing you to the film before you’re fully pulled in. (Seriously, I was shedding tears during the opening character introduction for Katie as most awkward cinephiles likely will, too. (My people!!!)) Then there’s the fact that TMvTM presents a variety of potentially neurodivergent or non-conforming characters without making the film about those variations or nonconformities. People are people are people and the things which make us different only make us who we are. The fact that the Rianda and Rowe can make a film that speaks to finding your people (chosen) while uplifting the notion of familial bonds without pushing one over another is an absolute gift for families who may be struggling with these concepts, as well. On top of all of this, we also get voicework from Olivia Coleman (everyone’s favorite evil stepmother) as the “villain” A.I. (her reasoning isn’t all that horrible given the context); Jacobson, herself not stranger to voicework, who is afforded the space to create the range necessary to illustrate Kate’s fears and frustrations; McBride, who offers something far more subdued, though not necessarily restrained, compared to the wild performances he is typically known for; Rudolph, the ace-in-the-hole who can make any line-reading a home run; and a slew of others whose surprise voice appearances will leave you giggling.
If there is a downside to The Mitchells vs. The Machines, it’s two-fold. First, a release on Netflix almost guarantees that the film will not receive a home release. Sure, you can always boot up your account, but there are times when owning something physical makes it that much more special and this is a film, I suspect, many will want to have at their fingertips when they are traveling with their own absurd family, feeling like a black sheep among the rest, or, just to enjoy without the requirement of the internet. Second, the timing of the release may mean that the film will be almost forgotten by the time awards season begins in earnest next fall. This would be criminal as the animation-hybrid is enough to place it in contention for consideration. Maybe it will find itself becoming that which it examines and the visual language of TMvTM will proliferate within other households to the point that we’ll be seeing the Mitchell family popping up in sight and song everywhere we look. Given the positive nature of the narrative, I’m more than ok with that.
Available on Netflix April 30th, 2021.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.