A lot of primo animation talent is assembled for The Mitchells vs. the Machines, including producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who were behind The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and writer-directors Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, late of the popular Disney Channel toon series Gravity Falls. Their fast-paced fantasy adventure involves an ordinary family tasked with singlehandedly halting a robot apocalypse that threatens to wipe out humanity. It sounds even better when you learn that the A.I. uprising is led by Olivia Colman as the voice of a spurned smartphone digital assistant, with a Furby army at her command.
This latest from Sony Pictures Animation was acquired by Netflix after repeat pandemic rescheduling killed its theatrical release. Whether you find it more frantic or fun will probably depend on your age. The best animated features manage to keep kids entertained while slyly charming the adults. This one tips toward the junior end of the dial with a hyperactive pop sensibility weaned on social media and candy-colored visuals awash in video filters, emojis, memes and wacky retro comic-book graphics. Hip youngsters, and the nerds who like to think they are, will eat it up.
The protagonist is teenager Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), a film-geek misfit who has been making narratively ambitious videos for her YouTube channel for years, including Dog Cop, a crime-fighter series starring the family’s bug-eyed pug Monchi. Katie views the world through movie references, and Rianda and Rowe take their cue from her. That means marching automaton forces resembling Star Wars‘ stormtroopers by way of I, Robot, and a threat of mass-scale human extermination out of War of the Worlds. But there’s a thin line between cine-referential cleverness and generic pastiche. What The Mitchells vs. the Machines calls to mind most of all is The Incredibles, with an underachieving family relying on their own fumbling resources, not on superpowers.
The movie keeps telling us the Mitchells are “weird but great.” But basically, they seem like countless standard sitcom families who bicker and bond, notably over a teen’s desire for independence and a clingy parent’s separation anxiety. The latter in this case is Katie’s father Rick Mitchell (Danny McBride), whose overprotective devotion translates as lack of faith in his daughter’s career goal of becoming a director. When they quarrel on the eve of her departure for film school in California, Rick decides to heal the rift by canceling Katie’s flight and rethinking her travel plans as a family road trip in their beat up ’93 burnt orange stick-shift station wagon. It’s abundantly clear by this point that for Rianda and Rowe’s target audience, 1993 might as well be the Jurassic Age.
That period gets a look in via the obsession of Katie’s kid brother Aaron (voiced by Rianda), lovingly indulged by their supportive peacekeeper mom Linda (Maya Rudolph). Looking to ease the friction during the cross-country drive, the Mitchells pull in at a dinosaur theme park in Kansas. There they encounter their neighbors the Poseys, Jim and Hailey (John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, in a cute casting wink) and their daughter Abby (Charlyne Yi), who is the same age as terminally shy Aaron and shares his passion for prehistoric creatures. The Instagrammed perfection of the Poseys’ annual togetherness trip makes them the polar opposite of the messy, dysfunctional Mitchells.
Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, superstar tech guru Marc Bowman (Eric André) bounds out before an adoring audience in his $1,000 hoodie to launch the latest must-have product from his monopolistic Pal corporation. It’s a next-generation digital assistant, a fully functional Pal Max robot that instantly renders smartphones obsolete — including Marc’s own blithely discarded device, voiced by Colman. In unsubtle but effective terms, the tech culture of the constant upgrade is paralleled with offspring leaving their parents behind in their eagerness to find “their people.”
Marc’s smartphone doesn’t take kindly to being trashed. Before the product demonstration is done, she reprograms the Pal Max fleet and sets in motion a plan for world domination, involving human containment in pods to be shot into space in massive rockets. “It’s almost like stealing people’s data and giving it to a hyper-intelligent A.I. as part of an unregulated tech monopoly was a bad thing,” says Marc by way of an apology as he meekly surrenders to the revolt of the machines. In one of many droll jokes about device addiction, the alarmed human exiles are pacified with free WiFi.
When the flying robots descend on Kansas, the smoothly coordinated disaster response plan of the Poseys proves no match for advanced technology. That leaves the scrappy Mitchells to patch up their differences and save the species from extinction, with help from two defective Pal Maxes damaged in the skirmish, Eric (Beck Bennett) and Deborahbot 5000 (Fred Armisen). Rianda and Rowe’s storytelling tends toward the manic from the start, but they floor the accelerator from the midpoint through to a climactic stretch that spirals into giddy videogame action, all designed to reinforce the tender, and inevitably moving, point that families are worth fighting for.
There are amusing touches, like a Colorado mall interlude with shades of Dawn on the Dead, in which anything with a Pal chip becomes weaponized, from marauding Roombas and soda machines to washer-driers with a “Carnage” cycle. “Who would’ve dreamed the tech companies wouldn’t have our best interests at heart,” says sweet-natured Linda, whose fierce maternal instincts nonetheless make her a force to be reckoned with. Chubby Monchi also becomes an asset, thanks to the Pal Max brain’s inability to identify him as dog, pig or loaf of bread. And the more advanced Glaxxon 5000 (voiced by Conan O’Brien) is improbably thwarted by Katie and Rick’s ear-splitting version of the T.I.-Rihanna hit “Live Your Life,” one of many pop tunes interlaced with Mark Mothersbaugh’s crazy-synth score.
I wish the film’s laughs were as consistent as its energy, giving its able voice cast better material, and that there had been more distinctive story beats like the unexpected hints that Katie is gay. Ultimately, this is an original adventure that feels stitched together out of a hundred familiar film plots, often freely acknowledging its pop-cultural plundering, as in the family’s obligatory slo-mo power strut away from a building exploding in flames. But for audiences content with rapid-fire juvenilia, the busy patchwork of prefab elements will be entertaining enough.
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, One Cool Films, Lord Miller, Sony Pictures Animation
Cast: Danny McBride, Abbi Jacobson, Maya Rudolph, Eric André, Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen, Blake Griffin, Conan O’Brien, Charlyne Yi, Sasheer Zamata, Alex Hirsch, Jay Pharoah
Director: Mike Rianda
Co-director: Jeff Rowe
Screenwriters: Mike Rianda, Jeff Rowe
Producers: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Kurt Albrecht
Executive producers: Will Allegra, Louis Koo Tin Lok
Production and character designer: Lindsey Olivares
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Editor: Greg Levitan
Visual effects supervisor: Michael Lasker
Casting: Brittany Grooms, Tamara Hunter
Rated PG, 113 minutes