Previously titled Connected, The Mitchells vs the Machines is Sony Pictures Animation’s latest offering directed by Gravity Falls writer Mike Rianda and produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) has spent her whole life sharpening her filmmaking skills and is about to leave the nest for a Los Angeles film school, much to the worry of her nature loving father Rick (Danny McBride). In an effort to patch up their complicated relationship, Rick charters a road trip to his daughter’s new school, which means putting the screens down and partaking in face to face conversations. Little do they know that a giant tech company has experienced a mutiny from within, resulting in the machine apocalypse assuming dominance in the world.
Ever since the beginning of the digital age, there have been a growing number of films dealing with our inability to unplug ourselves from the online scene: Her, Ready Player One, Searching, and Unfriended. It’s almost to the point of saturation. This looked like it was going to take a new direction based solely on the animation. And the final result is compelling, if a little too on the nose about its commentary.
The best parts are the emotional moments like a touching retrospective contrasting the father/daughter relationship before tablets were invented. They know how to develop the characters and show how technology has shaped our way of thinking, interacting, and perceiving others who have utilized the internet to personify their online identity. The voice acting is also spot on, with Danny McBride continuing to show that he can be both dramatic and hilarious. Everyone else fits their role to a tee, like Maya Rudolph as the mother and Mike Rianda himself as the dinosaur obsessed brother. Rather than hiring celebrities for the sake of attracting crowds, everyone was cast based on their connection to the characters. Speaking of which, they are identifiable and have their tender moments of bonding. The siblings getting along is a breath of fresh air and the parents venting with one another really show the generational differences they encounter with their children. Yet there’s still that element of everyone trying to find common ground and learning how to become better people. The villain is also cleverly handled in both sympathy and menace. Finally it doesn’t end with a dance off like most animated films have been doing since Shrek.
If only the rest of the story was just as poignant with its commentary. It’s the awkward comedy with the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, and if that’s not your style, this is going to give you heartburn. Some of it can be intelligent, but a good chunk feels random compared to the situation at hand. And once they start preaching the “be yourself” moral that’s starting to become cliché, it counters the whole notion of trying to adapt to the best of what the future and past have to offer. That, and the fast pacing can also clash with the slower emotional moments making this feel longer than it really is, clocking in at an hour and forty minutes.
The animation on the other hand is sheer artistic perfection. It has that unique Sony style of experimentation that not even Pixar has been able to surpass. No film in their catalog looks the same, and thanks to Alice Lemma’s character designs in both 2D and 3D, there’s always something on screen trying to outdo each sequence in expressions, speed, timing, and flexibility. Its the kind of project where animators from all walks of life can come together and create something that stands out in a time when the United States is obsessed with the domination of computer animation while the rest of the world continues to support traditional animation techniques.
The Mitchells vs the Machines is a fun, if somewhat flawed, road-trip. While the commentary and pacing could’ve been more subdued and the humor less random in terms of the story, it doesn’t overshadow the strong voice acting, emotional development, and unique artistic expression that’s now the forefront of what this animation studio is capable of. Anyone who has a Netflix subscription should watch it at least once, if only to find something original in a sea of brands. For all its faults this movie, along with Into the Spider-Verse, will most likely produce an art of book that any animator/artist should pick up if they want to learn about stylization. And for a movie with a world ending plot, it’s fate could’ve been much worse if handed to another studio.