The Netflix project from Into The Spider-Verse producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller is a sweet, vivid delight
THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES (Michael Rianda). 110 minutes. Available to stream on Netflix Canada on Friday (April 30). Rating: NNNNN
Family road trips suck, right? Especially when you’re a misfit teenager itching to fly off to film school and reinvent yourself as the person you’ve always known you were, but your dad doesn’t understand you and your mom’s way too enthusiastic and your kid brother is really weird… oh, and also the robot apocalypse just started.
Can a bickering nuclear family (and their weird pug) put their conflicts aside and save the world? What if their conflicts are the thing that gives them a fighting chance?
That’s the ingenious engine that powers The Mitchells Vs. The Machines, the latest animated feature from producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who launched the LEGO Movie franchise and produced Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse – all projects that married inventive visual design to lively characters and unexpected emotional depths. This one, from Gravity Falls veterans Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe, continues the winning streak: it’s a delirious entertainment where the comedy and the dramatic stakes escalate in perfect harmony, each joke setting up an emotional payoff, and vice-versa.
Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson is Katie, our narrator and sort-of hero; Danny McBride is her distant dad Rick, whose decision to drive the whole family cross-country to drop Katie at school puts them one step ahead of the machine uprising. Supported by Maya Rudolph as Mitchell matriarch Linda and director Rianda as nervous kid brother Aaron, they make a convincing clan of obsessive weirdoes; they may be cartoon characters, but their individual tics and flaws fit together in an entirely believable way.
Rianda and his Sony Pictures Animation teams build on Into The Spider-Verse’s triumphant mashing up of animation styles, decorating the digital frame with hand-drawn elements and even subtly referencing traditional animation in characters’ frown lines and wrinkles. The non-human characters are similarly lively, with the designers finding ways to imbue inexpressive glass faces with specific personalities (or a lack thereof) and play them against the human characters – with Eric André providing endless variations on baffled obliviousness as the tech bro who unwittingly enabled the robopocalypse.
The Mitchells Vs. The Machines is a pleasure to behold, and I wish I’d been able to watch it scaled up to size in a movie theatre, which was the plan before the pandemic led Sony to sell the film to Netflix. But its accomplishments go well beyond the visuals; like my beloved Shaun Of The Dead, it’s an inventive, personal take on the apocalypse, where the (potential) end of everything is the catalyst for a blinkered character to appreciate the people and places they’ve taken for granted; it’s just suitable for families, and a lot less sad. Which is probably for the best.