On paper, THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES has the appearance of a perfect family film. The cast is stacked and the creative dream teams that have given us gems like Gravity Falls and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse are behind the scenes, allegedly working their magic. When the film’s release was delayed due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, excitement and anticipation were still high. This should have worked. Yet, somehow, it didn’t. THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES just doesn’t pass muster.
THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES is written and directed by Michael Rianda (Gravity Falls) and Jeff Rowe. The film boasts and impressive all-star cast featuring voice performances by Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Eric Andre, Olivia Coleman, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, and many more!
THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES is a classic story of new school versus old school and what it means to be truly connected. Katie (Abbi Jacobson) is a meme-obsessed, film school hopeful that is never far from her screen and can’t wait for the chance to strike out on her own. Her family consists of nature-lover dad Rick (Danny McBride), awkward and dinosaur obsessed little brother Aaron (Michael Rianda), and her devoted, but plagued with Instagram envy mom Linda (Maya Rudolph). After a family argument on the eve of her departure for school, the Mitchells rally together for one final road trip – just in time for a hostile robot invasion. It’s up to this lovable, but dysfunctional family to save the world.
It’s tough to imagine a more difficult task than trying to capture Internet culture in a film. Especially an animated film, as those take such a long time to make. Many have tried and many have failed to tap into the rapidly and constantly evolving world of technology and the Internet. THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES makes a valiant attempt with its wry take on Silicon Valley and the evolution of personal devices, and casting famous influencers like Doug the Pug and Chrissy Teigen, but it ultimately fails.
So much of the film is hinged on humor and references that come from memes and that is the film’s most fatal flaw. Every joke in THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES is instantly dated because the memes that are being nodded to already feel centuries-old to the Internet fluent viewing audience. What’s worse is that the film’s preoccupation with technology’s march forward keeps these Internet fossils (seriously, when was the last time anybody has thought about Nyan Cat?) from having a nostalgic glow. It’s impossible to make this type of humor feel fresh. In only one aspect did the film manage to make an Internet culture joke that felt current, and that was Linda’s envy and competition with her Insta-perfect neighbors.
THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES has so much going for it, but it’s consistently cheapened by its own humor and filmmaking choices. A real shame. The animation style is really lovely and exciting, with character and bot designs that are tons of fun. However, that aesthetic becomes a tad unrestrained and that works to the film’s detriment. As I mentioned earlier, memes are a huge part of the film’s humor and the device quickly becomes a crutch (if not an outright hobble).
Katie prefers a version of the world that exists through screens and, as a result, imagines her life through the lens of kitty cat Instagram filters and emojis. Throughout the film, these small animated diversions become an extension of the character’s feelings and inner monologue. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s distracting to the point of being irritating. This could be a point of personal prejudice, but even the film seemed to recognize that this detail was grating and frivolous as the emoji-inner-monologue animation was largely absent from the scenes that had the highest emotional stakes.
In this same vein, it seems that THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES is uncomfortable with its own exploration of family problems and resolution. These characters are really, really grounded and well thought out. These characters are facing actual challenges and have fears that are relatable. The potential for deep emotion and heart is there and at every possible turn it is diluted with irritating (dated) humor. The emotional scenes aren’t given any room to breathe or allow the weight to settle. This is only made more intolerable when these actors, Danny McBride in particular, are giving such great performances.
As far as family films go, THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES is formulaic to the point of being blasé. It’s a story of strong-willed generations butting heads that has been done over and over again. That’s not a bad thing, but it puts the burden on the film to add something new. Taking this traditional narrative and placing it on the battleground of human versus technological connection is a unique take, but THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES just can’t seem to go the distance with the concept. The film bats around the discussion of whether all of this social media and screen time is bad for us and makes compelling arguments for connection of all kinds, but it can never find its thesis statement. I never expected a concrete solution or answer, but I did expect discussion that went deeper than “Agree to disagree.”
There is something to say about connection and technology and the way that we are all seeking the best way to reach those we love. It’s a shame that THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES never quite finds the best way of saying it. Genuinely hilarious and emotional moments are diluted by a fixation on dated meme humor that the film doesn’t fully seem to understand. Stellar animation isn’t enough to save this hum-drum family flick from its own bad jokes and bloated runtime.
THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES will premiere in theaters on April 23 and arrives on Netflix on April 30, 2021.