The Mitchells vs the Machines

The Mitchell family

A cross-pollination of Deadpool and The Lego Movie might result in The Mitchells vs the Machines, a mad, meta-referential animation full of smart ideas and packed with enough jokes for repeat viewings.

It’s refreshing, also, for a big Hollywood movie to be such a hymn (if hymns can be this busy) to weirdness. That’s largely down to co-writer/director Michael Rianda, who makes clear in the exit credits – with a big picture of his own family tagged “the real life Mitchells” – that this is a personal project.

Perhaps idiosyncrasy is a better word than weirdness, let’s not get carried away, because in the telling of a story about a teenage movie-mad girl called Katie, and her scrappy but loving family, there’s nothing out-and-out oddball going on. Katie just wants to go away to college and be with “her people” – fellow students on a moviemaking course – and her parents (and similarly idiosyncratic little brother) are reluctant to let go. Normal family stuff, in other words.

This family are an everyday, just folks kind of unit, a paean to the shabby, the make-do, the everyday, the exact opposite of so many airbrushed lives to be found on Instagram, through tricked out with all the bells and whistles of the Instagram age.

So, that’s the Mitchells, what about the machines? They arrive when dad Rick (voice: Danny McBride), mum Linda (Maya Rudolph) and brother Aaron (Rianda) are driving Katie (Abbi Jacobson) to university and the singularity occurs. Thanks to infernal dabbling in AI by tech magnate Mark Bowman (Eric André), the machines suddenly become supersmart, stop obeying orders from humans and set about rounding up the entire planet’s population, with the intention of firing them off into space.

Suddenly the Mitchells aren’t just driving Katie to California, they’re on a mission to save the planet (and rediscover their special family bond), with Katie’s almost insane optimism and wildly creative mind as their secret weapon. Actually, they all seem to have a secret weapon when it’s really needed, even the dog.

You could watch this film at half speed and still miss stuff. It is so packed with detail, and not just in the writing. The animation style is almost psychedelic in its fizziness, and drawing on social media for its influences as much as other movies, it’s erupting with stuff busting out all over the frame – emotions becoming visible in the shape of a heart or flowers, overlays as if a face-change app or a cat-face app had been suddenly switched on, and then off again just as quickly.

“Who would have thought a global tech company wouldn’t have our best interests at heart,” opines mother Linda at one point, thus completing the journey of tech in popular culture from good guys to out and out villains – 2013’s The Internship to 2021 and the arc is complete. If I were Mark Zuckerberg I’d be very nervous, even though the tech honcho himself isn’t portrayed as a bad guy, reinforced by the fact that Eric André is providing his voice, but the message is clearly that the whole thing is out of control and someone needs to do some restraining. If not the government, then… a suburban family.

Monchi the mutt
Monchi has his own superpower

Animated movies of yore managed to get by OK when no one had any idea who was voicing Cinderella, or Snow White or the Lady and the Tramp. Even so, there are some standouts here – André is well chosen, as said, so is Danny McBride as the dad, one moment vainglorious, the next crestfallen, McBride gets it all just right. And Olivia Colman is nicely chosen as the voice of the app that’s controlling the singularity – named PAL (reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL) – though maybe a touch too larky here and there. She’s meant to be dangerous, not silly.

John Legend and Chrissy Teigen send up their “we’re too-too perfectly, almost sick-makingly perfect” social media personas as the too-too perfect neighbours of the scrappy Mitchells, just an instance of the pop-culture references (Furbies, YouTube, theme parks) that keep on coming. As do the jokes, which pile on top of each other in Lego Movie style (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of Lego Movie fame, are the producers), to such an extent that you might want to hit the pause button occasionally. But for every one that flies by unnoticed, there’s another that will get the shoulders shaking.

We all rely far too much on tech, but this clever film goes way beyond observing that everyone’s hunched over a screen these days to make the observation that tech has already taken over, even without a singularity. And that the future won’t be the way we think it is. It isn’t a Terminator T-3000 we need to worry about, but smart washing machines and toasters all talking to each other – another great joke opportunity exploited brilliantly.

Funny, clever and saying something that’s worth saying, this has got to be the best animation of the year.

The Art of The Mitchells vs the Machines – get the Kindle book at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Bad Trip

Chris and Bud screaming

Bad Trip is Borat revisited. Same basic idea – pranks being foisted on real people, with a bit of scripted dramatic infill (a story) connecting the gotchas together. The pranks are all standalones, one-offs, which explains that no matter how short this sort of film is (the two Borat movies and Bad Trip all come in at a sober 90 minutes-ish), they always feel a bit too long.

But is Bad Trip funny is surely the only important question? The answer is that, yes, it is. I went into laugh-out-loud vocalising at about 15 minutes in and erupted frequently right up to the final moments.

The plot is a string of spider silk caught on a breeze and sees Chris (Eric André) and best bud Bud (Lil Rel Howery) driving from Florida to New York in pursuit of a girl (Michaela Conlin) for Chris. They do this by “borrowing” the car of Bud’s insane/angry sister Trina (Tiffany Haddish), who is meant to be in jail but breaks free and heads off in an “I’m going to get those fuckers” fury, driving a police car with one door missing – she ripped it off, that’s how badass she is.

That’s it. The rest is stunts, which lean more towards the sort we saw in Johnny Knoxville’s Bad Grandpa film – private parts and bodily fluids – as well as physical maiming and bestial sex. But actually it’s plain old fashioned awkward social situations that come out on top, like when Haddish approaches a fairly ordinary looking cop and is overcome with how handsome he is. The look of bemusement on the cop’s face.

Tiffany Haddish as Trina
Trina is angry… very angry

Bearing the brunt of the Candid Camera-style stuntery is André. This is his baby and an outgrowth from his TV show, The Eric André Show, which was a prankish affair. He’s the one who accidentally puts his hand into a blender in a moment of lovelorn reverie, sending blood fluming into the air in the juice bar where he “works”. And he spearheads the more audacious and obviously choreographed pieces, like when he breaks into song in a shopping mall, and is joined by dancers as he extolls the virtues of Maria (Conlin). An onlooker merely says “the fuck” and it’s enough for the whole thing to have been worthwhile.

Lil Rel Howery is an inspired choice as sidekick/sounding board. Black guys making mischief in a public space is a recipe for god knows what sort of unpleasantness and it really helps that “Bud” is obviously a good natured soul with an unthreatening doughboy physique. Haddish works a series of variations on the same gag throughout – she’s very very angry – and Conlin only really gets a couple of chances to show that she, too, can pull off this sort of daredevil dicking around, and she can.

The dupes/marks/members of the public are a blacker crowd than you got in the Borat or Bad Grandpa films, and there are some real advantages to be had from this decision, not least black audience’s call-and-response tendency to get involved, comment, play along. Though it doesn’t always go as planned – like the scene where Haddish is threatening to drop André from the top of a building and one female onlooker down below is shouting that she should just let him drop… 

The daredevilry of the performers wouldn’t be anything without the reactions of the onlookers, in other words, who are in the main warm and honest, smart and funny, selfless and brave, as is often the case with these things. It’s well worth hanging on for the outtakes, which are full of “reveal” moments, plus a few instances where the prank didn’t go quite as well as it might have.

Humanity reaffirmed in 90 minutes-ish. Not a bad trip to be on at all.

There are five seasons of the Eric André Show on Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021