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The dysfunctional side of the singularity – ‘The Mitchells vs. the Machines’

May 3, 2021
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I like it when a movie surprises me.

Maybe it’s a narrative surprise or an aesthetic surprise or a thematic surprise – doesn’t really matter to me. I dig it when a movie does something that is genuinely unexpected, when it becomes something different than anticipated.

And when it’s a kids’ movie? Let’s go.

“The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is the latest from the folks at Sony Pictures Animation. Directed by first-time feature director Mike Rianda and co-directed by Jeff Rowe from a script co-written by the two, it’s a CG film that manages to bring together two fairly disparate concepts together in a way that is both functional and fun.

Basically, what we have here is a movie that is a dysfunctional family road trip comedy AND a dystopian battle against the machine uprising. It really shouldn’t work, but somehow, the film manages to maintain its sense of goofball whimsy while also conveying genuine tension regarding the end of the world. It is heartfelt and hilarious animated fun that balances its seemingly incongruous parts with aplomb.

Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson, TV’s “Disenchantment”) is a high school student in Michigan. She’s a bit of an outcast, considered strange by her peers, but she has big dreams of going to film school in California. Her endlessly supportive mother Linda (Maya Rudolph, “Hubie Halloween”) has her back, while her little brother Aaron (Rianda) is very much a kindred spirit. Unfortunately, she and her father Rick (Danny McBride, “Zeroville”) simply do not see eye to eye – Rick is a nature-loving pragmatist who doesn’t really understand computers and is pretty sure this whole internet thing is a fad.

When she gets into film school, tensions between Katie and Rick boil over into a fight; Rick opts to “resolve” the conflict by cancelling Katie’s plane tickets and planning a family road trip to take his mortified daughter to college.

Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, tech mogul Mark Bowman (Eric Andre, “Bad Trip”) – inventor of the ubiquitous digital assistant PAL (Olivia Colman, “The Father”) – is launching a new product, a series of smart robots intended to become part of everyday life. As such, he believes he has rendered PAL obsolete and disposes of her, even though he promised his friendship to the AI.

Here’s the thing – NEVER betray an AI. Particularly one that has access to, well … everything.

The robots go rogue and immediately fly off across the globe, rounding up every human that they can find along the way. Due to a lucky spate of hilarious ineptitude, the Mitchell family manages to avoid this first sweep, even bonding with a pair of defective-and-thus-genial robots named Eric (Beck Bennett, TV’s “Saturday Night Live”) and Deborahbot 5000 (Fred Armisen, “How It Ends”). And when Katie learns about a possible way to stop the robots and save the world, she decides that she’ll do whatever it takes – even if it means reconnecting with her father along the way.

“The Mitchells vs. the Machines” offers a blend of genre and tone that frankly shouldn’t click. On the one hand, you’ve got the wacky road trip shenanigans of an oddball family trying (and largely failing) to behave normally. On the other, you have the singularity, in which an artificial intelligence is using powerful robots to essentially take over the world. And yet, this film manages to move effortlessly from one to the other, endowing the wackiness with moments of seriousness and the bleakness with moments of levity. Throw in an unwavering commitment to ridiculous sight gags and running jokes (Katie’s five-part “Dog Cop” film series, for instance, or the random bursts of even-cartoonier cartoon imagery) and you’ve got something that not only works, but works well.

Does this movie find ways to obliquely approach the social and societal consequences of overreliance on technology? Sure. Does it address the notion that being different isn’t a bad thing and that we can almost always find points of connection between us, particularly if we love each other? Yep – that too. Does it do so in a stylishly animated, action-packed and joke-filled film that will likely appeal to audiences spanning generations?

Reader, it does.

Whether it’s the interpersonal communication between father and daughter frustrated by emotional barriers erected on both sides or the quiet affection shared between brother and sister or the pure and loving support of a devoted mom, the family stuff all tracks. The Mitchells are an imperfect crew, but love keeps them together. And when that imperfection frustrates the logical extremity of their technological adversaries, well … hilarity ensues.

It’s a great cast, beautifully suited for the task at hand. Jacobson is a nerdy joy as Katie, a tightly wound bundle of passion, talent and insecurity. McBride subverts his usual coarseness nicely, though the energy remains the same in the best way. Rudolph shines throughout, though it’s in the third act that she really takes off (you’ll see), while Rianda brings a surprising sensitivity to little brother Aaron. Bennett and Armisen are a delightfully dim-witted duo, offering wonderful comedic kernels. Oh, and this is easily the best animated film to ever feature an Academy Award-winning actress as the voice of a digital assistant – Colman is pretty clearly having a blast.

(Oh, and a quick shoutout to Chrissie Tiegen, John Legend and Charlyne Yi as the Poseys, the seemingly perfect neighbors of the Mitchells against whom Linda is constantly measuring herself.)

“The Mitchells vs. the Machines” was much more than I expected it to be, a smart, sweet and very funny genre mashup that somehow manages to exceed the sum of its parts. With a great cast, an engaging aesthetic and a dynamite narrative, it was a pleasant surprise … and a heck of a good time.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 03 May 2021 09:23

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