“The Mitchells vs. The Machines” – “Mitchells have always been weird, and that’s what makes us great!” – Rick Mitchell (Danny McBride)
Directors/writers Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe’s animated feature – about an everyday family taking a cross-country road trip and running into a machine apocalypse – is a weird mash-up of ideas, and it’s pretty great.
Yes, you heard correctly: a machine apocalypse.
On the surface, this flick is “The Terminator” (1984) meets “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983). Just pretend that Skynet becomes self-aware and abruptly disrupts the Griswolds’ Wally World vacation.
In this case, Rick – the affable but sometimes emotionally klutzy patriarch – desperately wants to reconnect with his teenage daughter (Abbi Jacobson). He then convinces his wife, two kids, and dog to hop on Interstate 131 West in their 1993 burnt-orange station wagon and drive Katie (Jacobson) to college.
Hey, dropping off Katie at the airport was the original plan, but then we wouldn’t have a movie. Well, somewhere west of The Gateway Arch and east of Los Angeles, technology goes awry. Rather than cope with car ride antics, back-seat arguments, and side attractions (like a 7-hour mule tour), the Mitchells and the rest of the planet face an overwhelming robot army, one bound and determined to round up every human and send them on a one-way journey to Not On Earth Any Longer.
It’s up to the Mitchells – Rick, Linda (Maya Rudolph), Katie, Katie’s pre-teen brother Aaron (Rianda), and their dog Monchi – to save humanity. They’re sort of like the Incredibles, but minus superpowers. They do, however, possess quirky traits, and that includes Monchi, a congenial pug with a chronic case of Strabismus. Also, Rick resembles Bob Parr (a.k.a. Mr. Incredible), but his less fit first cousin.
Anyway, they miraculously pose as a match for PAL (Olivia Colman), a twisted, rogue A.I. version of Alexa and her relentless metallic/silicon militia.
It’s a zany PG-rated flick that households of all ages can enjoy, although mom and dad might feel a bit dizzy because of the rapid-fire visuals and kinetic pacing.
Rianda and Rowe helped write the Disney cartoon series “Gravity Falls” (2012 -2016), but this is their first directorial effort, which is a massive undertaking. This pair did recruit plenty of help and turn to the “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” IMDb page for the lengthy list of art, sound, and visual department collaborators. The teams’ and directors’ efforts indeed burst with an imaginative, ingenious potpourri.
In an April 26 interview with Inbtwn Animation Fest, Rianda explains his excitement with the on-screen possibilities.
“We have an animated movie. We could do everything,” and Rianda adds, “We really wanted to bring a stew of our influences. I wanted to bring the chaotic energy of Warner Bros. cartoons, and these Hal Ashby movies that are more grounded, mixed with “2001” (1968), “Enter the Void” (2009), and these crazy, more adult movies for the robot-side of things.”
Rianda’s right. He and Rowe cooked their cinematic concoction with seemingly 100,000 ingredients that vary from bold, wide-shot end-of-the-world imagery, slapstick sitcom humor, and famous and infamous pop culture references. Their film doesn’t have nearly as many nods to other movies or television shows as the Lego movies do, but “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” has its broad influences, including “Battlestar Galactica” (1978-1979, 2004-2009), “Maximum Overdrive” (1986), and “Kill Bill” (2003).
Add “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015) to the mix as well, because Katie dreams of attending the California College of Film and has been making small parody films – like “Dial ‘B’ for Burger” – for years.
Even with all the purposeful on-screen madness, at its core, this adventure centers around personal family connections, repairing and strengthening them. The narrative directly addresses the emotional strain – from both parents and children – of kids growing up.
Sure, it’s a familiar theme, but Rianda and Rowe put a lot of thought into establishing the Mitchells as meaningful characters during the generous 15-minute introduction to this likable, eccentric clan. The one possible exception is Linda because she fills a ho-hum, traditional-mom peacekeeper role, but the film’s third act makes up for any generalization slights in the beginning.
Geez, what do Rianda and Rowe do for a second act? They set the bar pretty high, but I recommend that they include the Mitchells in their next film. Yes, this family is weird and great, and for the record, their surname rocks.
⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and Trailer credits: Netflix