Saturday, March 12, 2022

The Mitchells vs. the Machines

There’s no denying that Sony Pictures Animation productions are very hit and miss. However, some of their recent films have shown that with the right people on board, they can actually advance CG animation in bold new directions. Such is the case with The Mitchells vs. the Machines, written and directed by Mike Rianda. Originally scheduled for a 2020 theatrical run, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a change in plans that led it to a 2021 release on Netflix. Now that the film has made its way to home video and other streaming platforms, however, more people have the opportunity to experience one of the more innovative CG films in recent memory.

Within the Mitchell household, tensions have flared up between Katie (Abbi Jacobson), an aspiring filmmaker, and her technophobic father Rick (Danny McBride). This comes to a head when, on the evening before Katie would move from Michigan to California to attend film school, Rick accidentally breaks her laptop during a fight. Fearing that their relationship will never recover, Rick cancels Katie’s flight and instead takes her on a cross-country road trip with her mother Linda (Maya Rudolph), her brother Aaron (Mike Rianda) and family dog Monchi (Doug the Pug) as one last bonding experience. During the trip, however, a new line of PAL Labs robots has gone rogue with orders to capture the entire human race. As a result of their dysfunctional behavior, however, the Mitchells inadvertently end up as humanity’s last hope against the robot uprising, for better or worse.

Rick doesn't always see eye to eye with his family; Clockwise from top:
Rick (Danny McBride), Linda (Maya Rudolph),
Katie (Abbi Jacobson), Aaron (Mike Rianda)

While the father/daughter bonding story at the crux of the road trip may have some familiar beats for some, it’s still very well-written. As Katie and Rick spend more time on the road, they grow a better appreciation for each other in spite of their differences and end up working really well as a team when they put their mind to it. There’s one particular object that Katie has on her, a wooden moose carving, that has a surprisingly emotional significance and adds more depth to their relationship, as well as Rick’s motivations. Linda, Aaron and Monchi also get their time to shine, putting their own skills and interests to use against the robots following the family across the country. The family’s unique quirks and clumsy attempts at working together also lead to a lot of well-timed laugh-out-loud moments that keep the film entertaining without detracting from the emotional core.

Alongside the major theme of family, which also shows itself in the secondary characters, the film also has a major theme of technology. Considering the premise, it would have been very easy for the film to just say “phone bad”, but that’s thankfully not the case. It doesn’t portray technology as solely good or bad, instead suggesting that its good or bad applications depends entirely on the intent of those using it. Fortunately, the film doesn’t come off preachy when it delivers this message, instead showing it subtly through the plot and character development.

Where The Mitchells vs. the Machines really innovates, however, is the animation. In a period where CG films have looked increasingly homogenous, this one firmly breaks away from the mold and presents a very unique art style that translates surprisingly well to 3D. Observant viewers may notice that the animation also employs techniques from traditional animation, including squash and stretch, while placing the characters in a realistically-detailed, but nonetheless stylized, world. The addition of 2D graphics at certain points also gives the editing a little chaotic energy, matching the chaos the Mitchells find themselves in and giving the impression that Katie edited the film, since she’s the one telling the story.

The editing works very well in the film's favor.

There aren’t really that many issues with the film, though if you want to get nitpicky, Aaron sounds a little old for his age, a result of Mike Rianda voicing him. This doesn’t stop Aaron from contributing well to the humorous and emotional voice acting, but the age discrepancy is pretty obvious.

Like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse before it, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is another great example of what Sony Pictures Animation can do when they have the right talent and passion behind their films. Even if some story beats can feel familiar, the film more than makes up for it with a creative story that puts a nice twist on themes of technology and animation that really pushes the medium forward. Hopefully, this film can also act as a sign of good things to come for CG animation.

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