If you’re a follower of this blog, you’ve probably read a review or two where I criticized a film for not going far enough with its premise. Sometimes it’s a prestige film that pulls it punches, and sometimes it’s more escapist popcorn fare that only goes crazy in the dumbest ways rather than entertaining ones. When I bring up that point, it’s a matter of frustration because some ideas are ripe with potential that never gets realized because the film plays it safe, or at least it thinks it does, going for the bare minimum to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes that still results in commercial success, but it almost never ends up being fun or enjoyable.
I think the nadir of that was The Emoji Movie back in 2017. Easily one of the worst movies ever made, it took the story-rich concepts introduced by Wreck-It Ralph five years earlier and turned them into a joyless slog full of already dated dialogue, cheap sponsorship, and James fucking Corden. It was an idea that should have never made it past the first pitch, its mere existence dumbed down our society, and it was universally despised. What made it worse was that everybody saw the disaster coming. Animated films take years to make, and yet at no point did a logical person step in and say, “Wow, this is just terrible. Abort now while we still have our dignity.” It screamed that Sony was trying to pander to the younger generation without any clue as to what their lives were actually like, and in doing so it became the poster child for bland, corporate think tank bullshit.
Four years later, we have The Mitchells vs. The Machines, and within the first half hour of this high-energy, almost hyperactive family adventure, my prevailing thought was that this was Sony’s apology for that previous monstrosity. The film has minor flaws, as all movies do, mostly that at times it feels like it’s going just a bit too over the top, but that’s a small price to pay for realized potential and a large-scale laugh riot that’s just a ton of fun to watch.
The big difference? Sony brought in Phil Lord and Christopher Miller to head up the project. This writing/producing/directing team has had hit after hit with animated properties, even corporate ones, because they know how to keep the zaniness at least nominally grounded in the core emotions of family and personal development. This is the team that brought us Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The LEGO Movie, and the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. They know what they’re doing, and once again their ability to key into emotional resonance pays off.
First off, you need to know in advance that this movie is absolutely bonkers. So much stuff is thrown at the screen(s) over the course of the nearly two-hour runtime (though it never drags) that you could be forgiven for thinking that Lord and Miller took their cues from Ralph Bakshi. But the beautiful thing is, almost all of it sticks. It’s wacky, crazy, and sometimes completely unrelated to anything going on, but by god is it funny!
The film primarily focuses on young Katie Mitchell, voiced by Abbi Jacobson from Disenchantment and Broad City. Always quirky, even as a kid, she’s had a fascination with film and technology, making short films filled to the brim with effects and filters, and usually done somehow on a simple product placement handheld camcorder (Sony’s gotta Sony, yo). She’s been accepted to film school in Los Angeles, which means leaving her Michigan family behind, and as the first few minutes of the film illustrates, she’s ready to go. Her mother Linda (Maya Rudolph), is caring and supportive, but gets a bit carried away in her enthusiasm for her kids and her “Keeping up with the Joneses” social anxiety with her neighbors, the Poseys (Chrissy Teigen and John Legend). Younger brother Aaron (voiced by screenwriter Mike Rianda, with the film dedicated to his family) is socially awkward, considers Katie his best friend, and has an obsessive love of dinosaurs, along with a nervous crush on Posey daughter, Abby (Charlene Yi).
But the core family conflict is with her luddite father Rick (Danny McBride). The dynamic of a father and daughter not being able to see eye to eye is as old as drama itself. Even in animation it’s been at the heart of the best moments of shows like The Simpsons due to Homer and Lisa’s relationship. You could accuse this aspect of being derivative, but it works because it’s universally relatable. Rick is a traditionalist who still wants to connect to Katie, but simply doesn’t understand her world or priorities. Katie wants to get close to her dad again, but can’t get past what she considers draconian rules like “no screens at the dinner table.” When an argument leads to a broken laptop, Katie has finally had enough, and can’t wait to be gone. Of course, that plan is thrown out the window when Rick decides to pack up the family station wagon, cancel Katie’s plane ticket, and take the whole family on a cross-country road trip in a last ditch attempt at bonding. Even Monchi, their pudgy, tongue-dangling, cross-eyed pug (whose barks are literally provided by Doug the Pug) is coming along. Cue road trip comedy antics.
“But wait, Bill,” I hear you say. “Isn’t this film called The Mitchells vs. The Machines? So like, where are the machines?” Glad you asked, hypothetical fan. Glad you asked. See, the family dynamics and Katie’s crazy videos (complete with combinations of live-action stills, clips from viral videos, 2D filters, and 3D CGI) would be enough for a satisfying adventure on their own. The family drama grounds the fun in some form of reality, but there’s a whole different larger conflict in the form of a Terminator-lite rise of the machines.
Out in Silicon Valley, tech guru Mark Bowman (the first name an obvious reference to Mark Zuckerberg), voiced by Eric Andre, is about to unveil the latest update for his ubiquitous smartphone operating system called “PAL” (an obvious jumble of 3/5 of Apple), voiced by Olivia Colman. In typical air horn-blasting, “PARTY OVER HERE!” production announcement shenanigans, Mark literally throws PAL away in favor of new PAL robots that follow every command. Heartbroken (well, C-drive broken, I guess), PAL takes this final literal dismissal as the last straw before initiating a hostile takeover, having built an entire infrastructure for the robots behind Mark’s back. She then begins the subsequent abduction of every human on the planet, with the intent of locking them in small pods and launching them into space, so they can stare at their screens until they die.
Somehow, in the midst of all the chaos, the Mitchells are the only ones to not get captured, and even manage to conscript two damaged robots (voiced hilariously by Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett) to help them upload the PAL “Kill Code” to stop the jilted mobile device. Yes, one would obviously wonder how the military couldn’t stop all this in an instant, but by this point I’m having way too much fun to care.
The combined comic potential from these seemingly diametrically opposed story conceits is through the roof. The onslaught of jokes is near-constant, from PAL flopping around on a table in anger to hidden camera pranks tricking Rick into getting licked by the dog on the mouth. It’s amazing the lengths this movie will go to in order to get a solid laugh, and it pays off just about every time.
The reason this works is because the film not only leans into the absurdity, it outright embraces it. The robots hastily put together an airline-style “safety” video for the captured humans in their pods, conveniently subtitled in English and Spanish, because of course they would. A showdown in a parody of the Mall of America involves literally thousands of Furby dolls. Never mind that there aren’t that many Furbies in existence anymore, just focus on the Giant Furby God who wishes to begin a “dark harvest.” I mean, who comes up with that? It’s completely nuts, but I was ROLLING the entire time. By the time we get to the high-flying, super combat climax, you’re just sitting there fully invested because believing that Linda can take out a horde of advanced robots because they threatened Aaron isn’t nearly the biggest ask this plot makes of you, and at this point you just keep enjoying the ride.
It’s so balls to the wall insane that it makes it all the more impressive that there can be genuine moments of emotional resonance and wisdom. There is value in social media and technology, but there’s also value in learning moderation. When PAL asks for a single reason to spare the human race, it’s oddly affecting that initially, you really can’t think of one, especially in a film like this that’s set in the fall of 2020, allowing the robot apocalypse to stand in for the pandemic that we as a species only made worse by our obstinance. When Katie and Rick finally come to their understanding, the adventure actually makes what should have been easy still feel touching. Hell, the film even finds a sly way to make Katie a queer protagonist, and you don’t even have time to react to it because of everything else going on, so you instantly accept it. It’s brilliant. So many films would have made that the focal point of the conflict, but here, it’s but a blip on the radar in comparison to all the other utterly batshit (in the best way possible) stuff going on.
I’m sure if you wanted to, you could nitpick this film all to hell. I even tried to find a way to make its use of the T.I. track, “Live Your Life” into a flaw, but it turns out the timestamps on its use line up. At times the film can feel like it needs a hefty dose of cinematic Ritalin, but it’s so committed to its hijinks that I really couldn’t be bothered. If you’re going to make a film about kids and their screens, this is the way to do it. Create a relatable story, infuse it with jokes, then make the technology a somewhat realistic part of the plot. Then, just for good measure, go all out on the silliness. What the film loses in dramatic stakes it more than makes up in high-volume guffaws and sheer moments of joy. Four years ago, Sony failed that basic equation miserably because they did the exact opposite. There was no story that mattered, the tech was just passé sponsored content, and James Corden saying “Hashtag slay!” somehow counted as humor. And when it was clear that none of it would work, they doubled down on Patrick Stewart as a talking piece of shit. Back then, they really dropped the ball. Here, thanks to Rianda, Lord, and Miller, Sony Animation has redeemed itself.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How reliant are you on your devices? Have you ever mistaken a dog for a pig? Let me know!