When film critic and theorist André Bazin asked, “what is cinema?” in the early 20th century, I wonder if he could ever have imagined the contemporary reality of streaming websites like YouTube and TikTok. Bazin was raising philosophical questions about the ontology of the photographic image, as well as lauding the merits of both Italian neorealism and the comedies of Charlie Chaplin. But ought we ask these same questions of Nyan Cat or Kombucha Girl? Is YouTube cinema? Is TikTok? Whatever the answer, The Mitchells vs. The Machines owes a great deal to these audiovisual platforms, both in terms of its comedic content and its formal aesthetics. This Phil Lord and Chris Miller-produced animated film is a madcap movie-celebrating meta-commentary amusement ride.
Director Mike Rianda and his co-director and -screenwriter Jeff Rowe have created an animated mashup of two familiar filmic genres, namely the Family Road Trip Comedy and the Dystopian Robot Apocalypse. The eponymous Mitchells are the teenage filmmaker Katie (Abbi Jacobson), her younger brother Aaron (Rianda), and her parents, Linda (Maya Rudolph) and Rick (Danny McBride). The story’s primary conflict (apart from artificial intelligence threatening to destroy all of humankind) is between Rick and Katie, a father/daughter generational clash of personalities and passions. Rick doesn’t “get” Katie and her obsession with making home movies like “Dog Cop,” a hilarious web series featuring the family’s unsightly pug, Doug. Likewise, Katie doesn’t “get” Rick and his nature-loving pragmatic luddite values. So when the college-aged Katie is about to head off to Los Angeles for film school, Rick spontaneously packs up the family for a “one last hurrah” road trip to drop her off in California. At the same time, the Siri/Alexa of this world, PAL (perfectly voiced by Olivia Colman) is about to be made obsolete by her maker, Silicon Valley tech guru Mark Bowman (Eric André). When PAL goes rogue and uses a robot army to begin capturing the humans in order to launch them all into space (not difficult to do when the humans’ containment cells come with free wifi), the Mitchells find themselves as the unlikely potential saviors of the species.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines is stuffed with clever pop culture meta-references and humor. Perhaps overstuffed; the film’s frantic pacing, onslaught of jokes, and nearly 2-hour runtime made this viewer feel exhausted and even a bit bored by the inevitable action-packed finale. While the film makes broad criticisms of social media and our tech-obsessed culture, it also inevitably affirms those very same things, ultimately making an potential social commentary or critique both blunted and shallow. For instance, Linda Mitchell keeps comparing her family to their seemingly-ideal neighbors, the Poseys (voiced by John Legend and Chrissy Teigen), whose Instagram influencer lifestyles look absolutely perfect. Yet the film’s ultimate resolution to this problem of social media idolization is for the Poseys to “follow” the Mitchells on Instagram after the latter saves the world. As another example, while Bowman and PAL are presented as the antagonists here, the film has the audacity to sincerely say (through Rick) that what Bowman has built through his world-dominating tech empire “might not be all bad.” This may seem minor, but there were enough of these mixed messages in The Mitchells vs. The Machines to make me wonder whether the filmmakers simply wanted to have their cake and eat it too. Moreover, the plot features a few too many deus ex machinas—a certain perfect screwdriver, a pug-generated glitch in the robots, etc.—which undermine any real sense of tension.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines is at its best when it embraces its wacky humor meant for hyper-short Internet-based attention spans raised on YouTube clips and ever-scrolling social media feeds. I confess, a few jokes and scenes made me laugh until I had tears in my eyes (I absolutely loved the entire Furby sequence). So, if you’re looking for a hilarious mental distraction in the form of an action-filled sentimental family film, The Mitchells vs. The Machines will do quite nicely. If you’re wondering about Bazin’s queries about the ontology of cinema itself, well…there’s this cool bit in the movie about Dog Cop.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7979580/