As the creative minds behind The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Phil Lord and Chris Miller have an undeniable track record for pulling off unlikely concepts. From 80’s TV to books about raining food, they can make it work. With The Mitchells vs. The Machines though it seemed as though the dynamic duo had produced a work with a deliberate deal-breaker forcibly inserted. Opening as a quaint, family road-trip comedy that was suddenly derailed by a robot uprising.
Now the pedigree behind the film suggests this isn’t the case. Previously directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe had worked on Gravity Falls, a series that also interwove quirky family dynamics with wild sci-fi/fantasy antics. However it remains the case that The Mitchells… biggest problem is that it can’t marry its two genres quite as seamlessly. And that failure is enough to break the spell on what would otherwise be forgivable story failings.
The story concerns Katie Mitchell, a film student about to leave for college. After a falling out with father Rick, she wakes up the next morning to discover that her father has decided to hijack her journey into a family road trip. Intending to heal the long-gestating rift that’s grown between them. Meanwhile the omnipresent tech company PAL has just unveiled their latest creation; fully functional robots that immediately go rogue. By sheer chance the Mitchells, particularly the technophobic Rick, are the only humans left able to stop the robot apocalypse.
On paper the slamming together of family comedy and dystopian science fiction doesn’t read so much like comedic juxtaposition and more a script written by mad-libs. However there is the nugget of rich story potential buried within. The fractured relationship between Rick and Katie is endearingly written and performed. Framing Rick less of an ignorant oaf and more as a practical nature enthusiast who simply doesn’t engage with his daughter’s modern pursuits. The robot uprising then provides an outlet for Katie to recognise his value as a capable protector and he, in turn, can recognise the practical use for her artistry.
So far, so formula, but at least it’s a place to start, and it’s all dressed up with the now signature collage of animation styles that characterise Lord/Miller’s works. With CGI alongside hand-drawn animation, photography and even Instagram filters in such point-perfect ways to never become obnoxious or immersion breaking. All of the style and visual flair existing simply to punctuate the very real emotional core of the moment, from executing dangerous car jumps to moments of quiet reflection.
The problem is that the two narratives; the family road trip and the robot uprising, never coalesce with any consistent thematic thread. Yes, Rick is coded with a distinctly rustic aesthetic but he’s hardly a Luddite. His appreciation for nature and handiwork feels more like a throwback to America’s pioneering spirit than a genuine interest. And while emojis and gifs seem to be Katie’s most authentic form of communication she’s no more tech-obsessed than any other teenager. So whenever The Mitchells… tries its hand at lazy topical satire at the ubiquity of tech or our overreliance on Wi-Fi it all feels detached from The Mitchell’s earnest dynamic.
It’s this dissonance which ultimately breaks the spell of The Mitchells… visual humour and endearing characters. Exposing the cracks in the broad structure of its script. The ups and downs between Katie and her father are frequently articulated in heavy-handed, inorganic dialogue. At one point she privately derides him for no other reason than to set up a second act low point. The family’s dysfunctional qualities are constantly played up, as though it makes them bizarre outliers and not the white, middle-class nuclear template that The Simpsons was riffing on thirty years ago.
Despite any contrived character conflict though, The Mitchells vs. The Machines, manages to wring genuine, heartfelt moments out of its bizarre premise. The voice cast puts in stellar work, particularly Maya Rudolph’s transformation from upbeat mom to ruthless badass as Linda Mitchell. But the stars of the show are Abby Jacobson and Danny McBride as Katie and Rick, respectively. In less talented hands either could come across as obnoxious stock characters, however there is a relatability to both that keeps you firmly onside.
The talent alone is enough to guarantee that film will likely be one of the best animated features of the year. Constantly inventive, funny and made with heart. Like the road-tripping family at its centre, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is far from perfect but it is still utterly unique in its own way.