One of the great modern animated comedies is Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, a loopy adaptation of the famous children’s story. The 2009 adaptation took the picture book’s basic concept of food falling from the sky instead of rain and snow, and warped it in delightful fashion as a disaster-movie parody with a surprisingly effective emotional undercurrent. That film’s directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, have shown themselves to be adept animation filmmakers, also serving as major guiding forces on The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, so their presence behind the scenes of the new Netflix release The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a sign of hopefully high quality. And mercifully, that’s very much the case with this enormously funny, big-hearted comedy that manages to take what could be an exhausting but timely technological argument and twist it into gleeful pretzels.
The Mitchells are a singularly awkward and weird family well before they have to fend off a technological apocalypse all on their own. There’s oldest daughter Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), who’s set to go to film school in California where she assumes she’ll find her people, those who appreciate her oddball and anarchic creative spirit. It’s nothing against her parents Rick and Linda (Danny McBride and Maya Rudolph) – they love her but don’t really seem to get her. Katie’s younger brother Aaron (co-writer and director Mike Rianda) is as odd as her, with an obsession with dinosaurs so fierce that he calls random people in the phone book to see if they want to talk with him about the extinct creatures. After Rick decides to turn Katie’s flight to film school into a family-bonding road trip, they wind up being at the center of an AI-driven uprising, as a Google/Apple-like company’s personal assistant Pal (Olivia Colman) engineers a revolt to rid Earth of all humanity.
That The Mitchells vs. the Machines is utterly ridiculous is part of its charm. Katie narrates the story, first giving us a glimpse into her homemade films, in which her odd-looking dog Monchi stars as a canine cop. Once the story expands to incorporate the larger world-saving adventure, the filmmakers add visual flourishes that evoke Katie’s deliberately slapdash, lovingly created stories. Rianda and co-writer Jeff Rowe (both of whom cut their teeth on the Disney XD show Gravity Falls) deftly balance a sense of the personal – the end credits feature photos of many of the filmmakers and actors as children with their own families – and a sense of the outrageous. Before the uprising begins, they effectively create a dysfunctional family in the Mitchells while carefully seeding ways in which the family will be stronger and closer to each other by the end.
Once the robots rise up against their human masters, The Mitchells vs. the Machines goes into high gear. It’s only through a case of dumb luck that the Mitchells end up fighting a cadre of devious robots. Their first encounter at a roadside rest stop includes them watching their perfect neighbors (voiced by Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, and Charlyne Yi) attempting to fight the bad guys before being captured, and then stumbling their way into battle. Each of the big action setpieces offers an incredibly smart blend of tension and comedy; none is funnier than a midpoint scene at a mall where various appliances and toys, including a line of revived Furbys, come to life to try and stop the Mitchells from saving the day.
The deftest element of the script is that The Mitchells vs. the Machines never turns into a hectoring lecture about the evils of technology, or about its dehumanizing qualities. Rick is the Luddite of the family, utterly perplexed by technology and wishing his family would ignore their phones at the dinner table to have actual conversations. But the core emotions of the film are rooted in Katie’s relationship with her dad, which means that while they both change throughout the course of their adventure, he has to shift a little bit towards embracing technology – or at least learning how to play videos on YouTube – by the end. As in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, there’s a celebrity-like guru spearheading cutting-edge technology, though this one (voiced by Eric Andre) is less villain and more well-meaning techbro. Though technology is the villain of The Mitchells vs. the Machines, that doesn’t turn the film’s message into a straw-man argument about how All Tech is Actually Always Bad.
Of course, considering this film’s origin, that takeaway would’ve been a big surprise. In a pre-pandemic world, this film was called Connected and it was slated to be released in theaters by Sony. Now, it’s going straight to Netflix in the States, which is only a shame because some of the action would be mighty funny to watch on the big screen. Even as an acquisition, The Mitchells vs. the Machines represents another step forward for Netflix as the truest, most powerful competition in the animation world against the behemoth of Disney. With many of its productions and acquisitions, Netflix has proven itself to be an all-ages hub for great, intelligent, spunky animated stories. The Mitchells vs. the Machines is no different – it’s an unbeatable combination of humor and heart.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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