The entire time I spent watching The Mitchells vs. The Machines I couldn’t help but think about Toy Story. And how even the best animated comedies these days never really enter the territory that the 1995 classic occupies. There were several worthy of comparison at the time, and over the years as well, but in recent vintage it feels like even the best offerings fall way short.
And this doesn’t mean that modern animation can’t be enjoyable, because there are many that are. But when comparing them to older selections, there are hardly any masterpieces anymore. We might just be at a point in the evolution of narrative where the different converging variables aren’t aligning quite as fluidly. There’s a tendency these days to try new things, to broaden the scope of what animation can do—like any genre or medium—but with new, ambitious premises can come a whole new batch of disconnects.
Where Toy Story deals with heavy themes, it does so in small steps. The world of the characters is so large, yet in reality it only really takes place within the confines of two houses. Although it introduces a brand new concept, it doesn’t riddle the story with a plethora of ideas, and it never tries to overreach its grasp. The film knows what it wants to say and is incisive in doing so. A good (or great) high-concept movie will find brand new themes which arise simply from the inventive premise. However, The Mitchells vs. the Machines has a hard time excavating its story for anything fresh. There’s a lot that it wants to get off its chest and uses broad strokes to do so. And unfortunately this feels more and more common these days. Traditionally, and almost out of necessity, animated films do indeed deal with high-concept premises, contrasting relatively small stakes in plot with big emotional ones. The Mitchells vs. the Machines tries for a home run on both counts, but ends up with a double.
I’m not asking for perfection. Despite their flaws, older animated movies have a cinematic magic that comes from an earnest attempt at telling a story and letting the themes surface organically. Even at its most implausible, Toy Story’s flaws were never apparent—at least not upon first watch. And this goes for a lot of its contemporaries as well—even something as recent as How to Train Your Dragon. However, modern movies like The Mitchells vs. The Machines, which people are comparing to some of the best animated movies of this generation, seem to consistently be riddled with holes and lapses in logic or judgement.
The beginning of this film almost feels like the beginning of a TV series. A tech bigwig, Mark Bowman (Eric Andre), invents a new line of domestic robots to replace his highly innovative and ubiquitous AI, PAL. In retaliation, PAL (Olivia Colman) takes over Mark’s company and orders all of the robots to kidnap every human on Earth and launch them into space (instead of actually killing them, because that would be too easy). The story could literally go in a dozen different directions and into hundreds of different subplots. It seems like it would take hours for this conflict to resolve, yet we have less than two. This is not a type of lofty premise we typically see an animated film tackle, and for good reason. It’s one that could very easily be accomplished in live-action, with the animated aspect only being justified with the filmmakers’ hyper-stylization, being part of the same lineage as The LEGO Movie.
A recent movie that actually successfully accomplishes the task of a lofty premise is the 2018 sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet, where our hero scours a tangible version of the world wide web to find a MacGuffin device to help his best friend restore her purpose in life. However, that movie manages to take an infinitely vast space and shrink it down effectively to work on film, and does so with fresh themes and a wickedly economic storyboard. The achievement comes in making this totally computer-generated world feel aptly expansive. We had never seen anything like it, and the movie inside was just as awe-inspiring. As for The Mitchells vs. the Machines, we’ve seen this product before, but here it’s just been given a new package. The wrapping paper is shiny, sturdy, and has a pretty bow on top, but alas it’s still just the same old movie.
Our protagonist, Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson), has always made home movies, much to the disdain of her father, Rick (Danny McBride), who loathes all technology. Her mother, Linda (Maya Rudolph), tries to see both sides and just wants everyone to get along. Katie’s dinosaur-obsessed younger brother, Aaron (Mike Rianda), is her best friend and the only person who truly gets her. Katie gets accepted into film school across the country in California. She struggles with being misunderstood in high school, but has already found new college friends who she meets through her university’s social media outlets.
Just as Katie is about to leave for college, she and her dad have a huge blowout. To make it up to her, Rick decides to plan a road trip across the country to bond as a family. Katie is not thrilled about missing orientation, and we don’t blame her. The trip happens to commence right as the robot takeover does, and due to the unlikeliest (and most improbable) of circumstances, the Mitchells become the last surviving humans on Earth. Now they have to deliver a kill code to PAL headquarters, also in California, to stop the machines from “killing” the humans.
On the surface, The Mitchells vs. the Machines feels like something we’ve never seen before. Directed and co-written by Mike Rianda, it’s the Phil Lord/Christopher Miller school of ADD-fueled bonanza of humor and action, like a zany comic book in movie form, but with a post-apocalyptic road trip premise. However, the plot is nothing short of predictable due to its trite characters and transparent agenda.
Rick Mitchell is the archetypal anti-technology, wilderness-loving father who just wishes his family would put down their phones during dinner (he’s not wrong), yet with a passiveness that doesn’t quite match his passionate disdain. He’s also that dad who inexplicably lacks any sort of skills in communication or conflict resolution. His wife, Linda, is exactly the person you would expect him to be married to based on our engineered expectations from watching movies our entire lives.
Rick and Katie don’t ever see eye to eye, but it says a lot about him that, despite his disregard for his daughter’s hobbies, he’s still willing to pay for her to go to film school across the country—a little detail that never gets addressed and only makes Katie look all the more unappreciative, but not to these filmmakers.
Katie is the typical misunderstood teenager (by the way, you can make a strong case that most teenagers feel misunderstood) with artsy hobbies and a weird sense of humor. She’s not necessarily unlikable, but she’s also not terribly likable either, outside of her admirable relationship with her brother. And by the way, I understand that for people with a certain point of view there’s a desire to not draw specific attention to the homosexuality of a character, thus making the reality of it frank rather than an actual point of discussion, aka “normalizing” the homosexuality. However, in this film, there’s a very frank voiceover narrative early on that would have every logical reason to declare that the person speaking is, in fact, homosexual. Yet somehow it avoids this declaration just as unrealistically here as it would be to actually point it out randomly in other movies. And then, later on, when this fact is verbally revealed, it’s done so expectedly candid and without any recoil whatsoever (her father is definitely conservative and her mother is a Christian). Most of us can see this coming from the very beginning, only it’s inexplicably saved for the epilogue for some reason, which feels like more of a trap for conservative parents than it is an intended normalization.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines tries to ground itself in reality with human characters and relatable themes, but then suspends disbelief at every turn, relying on absurdities to further the plot. Most of the relationship-building feels earned, but the audience still has a hard time buying into the desperation of the apocalyptic situation if the characters themselves never seem to take it seriously. Even most of the jokes, while admittedly funny, aren’t justified in the established logic of either the scenes or the world that’s been created. I get that this is a cartoon, but there still has to be something threading this together. Going back to Toy Story (I’m sorry), in the opening scene we understand almost all of the rules of this world, and they’re never broken throughout the movie, except for one, which is broken in an ingenious and outside-the-box sort of way. However, the rule breaking in The Mitchells vs. the Machines has more to do with the in-world logic becoming severed and no longer lining up for us as spectators. Even something as wild and wacky as Looney Tunes still keeps its rules intact. What would we think if there came a time when Wile E. Coyote didn’t peel himself off the ground?
Katie’s brother, Aaron, is a standout as the oddball who goes through the phone book cold-calling strangers to ask if they’d like to talk to him about dinosaurs. There are also two defective robots, voiced by Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett, who join the Mitchells on their quest. Initially, they draw faces with Sharpies onto their blank black screens to try and trick the humans into thinking that they’re also human. It doesn’t work, but these two provide for a consistent dose of off-kilter comedy throughout the film. Although, it does beg the question of why don’t they just task these two robots with infiltrating PAL headquarters with the kill code rather than the Mitchells disguising themselves as robots instead? But if that happened, then how would we see that it’s love and the willingness to change that will ultimately save humanity?
The film does catch me off guard once. Throughout the story we’re made to believe that Katie is the wiser between her and her father, but as we discover in one moment, she has a lot to learn about life still. Although she may understand certain aspects of the modern world better than her dad, his point of view is still very much valuable in today’s society. He’s still seen a lot more of the world than she has, which makes his position even harder to come off of. We find out that (shocker) you need both old school and new school mentalities to solve many issues, especially when it has to do with a robot apocalypse!
I also like the line when Linda says, “Who would’ve thought a tech company wouldn’t have our best interest at heart?” Indeed, Linda.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines bursts with style and aesthetic detail, and is good for consistent laughs, as well as a very fun (anti)climactic shopping mall sequence that somehow only comes at the midway point. Visually and stylistically there’s a lot here for animation fans to appreciate. But for a film that tries to celebrate humanity through its apocalyptic plot, there seems to be too much reliance on cliches and an already-proven formula doing the heavy work for the filmmakers.