All art is political, including computer-animated art. Some computer animated art, like Sony Animation’s pandemic-delayed diversion from our pre-apocalyptic times, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, proudly wear their politics. This latest piece of animation includes a vitally important critique of our social media- and tech-obsessed era and the relatively unexplored role of all-powerful, monopolistic tech companies on our everyday lives. In fact The Mitchells vs. the Machines challenges viewers of every political persuasion to reexamine their social media habits and cult-like allegiance to tech companies; all the while smartly entertaining viewers with top-shelf visuals, rapid-fire jokes, and cleverly directed action scenes that should be closely studied at film schools for their ingenuity, imagination, and wit.
There’s far more to The Mitchells vs. the Machines, though, than politics, polemics, or inventive animation. At its core, The Mitchells vs. the Machines centres on the titular family of not-quite misfits led by Rick (voiced by Danny McBride), a husband and father facing the imminent departure of his quirky teen daughter, Katie (Abbi Jacobson), for film/meme school in Southern California. Add to that Danny’s wife and Katie’s mother, Linda (Maya Rudolph), the living, breathing embodiment of positivity and family togetherness, and Katie’s younger, dino-obsessed brother, Aaron (co-writer and co-director Mike Rianda). The frequent star of Katie’s YouTube videos, Monchi (Doug the Pug), rounds out a family that has misplaced the “fun” in “dysfunctional” and forgotten the lesson learned by countless families stuck in disaster films: unity and strength in cooperation, compassion, and altruism.
They eventually learn those lessons, albeit in fits and starts, after they find themselves alone and isolated after a robot revolution led by an errant A.I. PAL (Olivia Colman) is a being deeply displeased about being replaced by robotic personal assistants and publicly declared obsolete by her hoodie-wearing creator-father/tech bro, Mark Bowman (Eric André). She decides to take over her parent company’s servers and begins scooping up the human population in flying pods equipped with state-of-the-art tech, including free wi-fi. Pacifying an already pacified, infantilized population isn’t particularly difficult (one among many of the film’s pointed critiques that sting with the truth of familiarity), but the Mitchells, thanks to their slightly left-of-center idiosyncrasies, prove to be far more difficult for PAL and her legions of flight- and repulsor-powered robots to capture .
Co-written and directed by Rianda and Jeff Rowe (Gravity Falls), with an assist from uber-producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The LEGO Movie), The Mitchells vs. the Machines deftly interweaves lightly played, relatable family conflict with an overabundance of physical gags, pop culture-inflected jokes, and bright, eye-popping animation. It’s equal to — and possibly even superior to — Disney Animation and Pixar Animation’s recent output. For visual inspiration and design aesthetics, Rianda, Rowe, and their animation team drew heavily from a combination of likely and unexpected influences, including Tron, its underappreciated sequel, Tron: Legacy, I, Robot and Oblivion.
As Katie and Rick learn to overcome their differences, grudges, and misunderstandings, it becomes apparent that, although the Mitchells might not have superpowers like the Fantastic Four or The Incredibles, as a family unit along with Linda, Aaron, and a scene-stealing Monchi, they become a formidable quintet. They are flawed, but more alike than not — simultaneously embracing their individuality and their lifetime membership in their family. Once the world is saved from our worst social media- and tech-related obsessions, it’s almost a shame to say goodbye to the Mitchells, a testament to everyone involved in bringing them to animated life.