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This year, three animated movies aim to talk to children and adults about the progress (and perils) exhibited by AI, social media and the internet — and the filmmakers all agree that animation is an ideal medium with which to translate these ideas into something visual.
“You get to invent everything,” says Michael Rianda, writer-director of The Mitchells vs. the Machines. “And because you have so much control, you can really caricature things in a way that you can’t in real life.”
Netflix’s Mitchells — produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and Sony Pictures Animation — features a robot apocalypse led by a maniacal virtual assistant, PAL (voiced by Olivia Colman), who is enraged that her owner has upgraded to newer technology.
In depicting PAL, Rianda wanted to contrast “imperfect” humans with more symmetrical robots by looking at “James Turrell installations and Stanley Kubrick movies — anything that felt perfect and symmetrical,” says Rianda. “The visuals were matching the themes of the movie, which is that these machines are maybe a little too perfect.”
Rianda adds that one animator even kept a 1999 Microsoft news conference queued up for inspiration, as the goal was “to be observational about what tech companies do, because some of the stuff they do is scary, and they want to put a clean, cute face on it. We wanted to do the same thing with PAL’s face.” But Rianda says that ultimately Mitchells is as much about family as it is a reflection on tech. “I think there is this innate fear of technology, but also on the other hand … during COVID, we couldn’t communicate with each other without technology. It was imperative to be even-handed. This technology is here in many ways. It’s already part of the family, it’s at your dinner table.”
Writer-director Mamoru Hosoda’s Beauty and the Beast-inspired Belle (which gets a theatrical release Jan. 14 from GKIDS) follows Suzu, a shy 17-year-old from a rural village who becomes an international singing sensation when she enters a virtual world known as “U,” depicted as a vast metropolis. Speaking through a translator, Hosoda notes that earlier depictions of the internet (including his own) tended to be “full of white backdrops, a little more fun. In 2021, I think that imagery has shifted, and you can see that in Belle. It’s becoming another reality. … This is an issue a lot of our younger generations are facing today — where the internet has already grown into this second reality.”
Hosoda suggests that the earlier hopefulness “has waned a little bit. It’s become more of a toxic culture.” In spite of this, he says, “I still think the newer generations should approach it with some amount of hopefulness. That’s what I wanted to say in Belle.”
Also set in the social media age, 20th Century Studios and Locksmith Animation’s Ron’s Gone Wrong follows Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer), a socially awkward middle schooler, and Ron (Zach Galifianakis), his new digitally connected “best friend,” who causes chaos when he malfunctions. “It feels really important that we’re talking to our kids and helping them reflect upon the experiences that they’re having in the virtual and the online world,” says Sarah Smith, a writer and director on the film, noting that these can be “both good and bad — the extraordinary explosion of creativity, connection and friendship … but also the loneliness and isolation and dangers of it as well.”
Smith admits there are no easy answers, but she does hope to convey through the movie that “you need the uncurated friendship, you need relationships between people who no algorithm would put together. That is an essential part of life.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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