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.
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.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021