Heads Up!: I was able to view this early with a screener. Thank you, Netflix!
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While I do enjoy the animated offerings from a company like Disney, I feel like the biggest hurdle every animation studio is going to run into is not another studio, but themselves. I know that sounds snobbish, but let me explain. Disney will probably make some great movies this decade. They might even warrant the award wins that they garner. However, you know that unless the very higher-up individuals in charge allow it, you know they won’t go outside of their boundaries. They might in some visual way, but story and writing? Well, you know they won’t go the distance that we hope they can. That’s what I mean by all of this. I want every animation studio to be the best version that they can be, but I know the much bigger ones like Disney won’t be able to grow or do what we want them to do. It’s why when they do something like have more LGBT+ elements or characters, they are relegated to the TV and shorts area. That is why a studio like Sony Pictures Animation is probably one of my favorite studios as of late. They tend to be more mindful and caring about pushing the envelope a little. They go the distance. Heck, they have made the next step in CGI animation happen with Into the Spider-Verse. Even before then, they were able to push the envelope with the Hotel Transylvania franchise with the use of bounce, squash, and stretch used for the animation of those films. They were willing to go downright silly with The Angry Birds Movie 2 and sure, you can say what does and doesn’t work about them, but the fact they went the distance is why I admire them. That, of course, goes into today’s review of their newest animated feature with The Mitchells vs. The Machines.
Directed by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, this new CGI/2D feature was originally supposed to come out back in 2020, but then the pandemic happened and was taken off the release schedule for a good bit with no place to call home. They then surprised the world by saying that the film was heading to Netflix with a small theatrical release. It comes out April 30th on Netflix, but I was able to watch the film early due to a screener, and, well, everyone is in for a real deal treat as this is, for the time being but I wouldn’t be shocked if it stayed that way, the best animated film of 2021. Why? Well, let’s dive in.
The story revolves around Katie Mitchell, voiced by Abbi Jacobson. She is the daughter of the Mitchells’ family which includes her father Rick, voiced by Danny McBride, her mother Linda, voiced by Maya Rudolph, and her little brother Aaron, voiced by Mike Rianda. Katie has always been the odd one out. She loves making movies and ends up getting accepted into a film school. Of course, her dad doesn’t seem to care much for her filmmaking and technology in general and is worried about her going off to school without a backup plan. They get into a fight and it’s up to Rick to solve this situation between him and his daughter. This leads to him canceling her plane ticket to college and instead takes the whole family on a road trip to the college. While this is happening, the head founder of PAL Labs, the Apple of this film’s world, is about to reveal a new product. This founder in question is named Dr. Mark Bowman, voiced by Eric Andre. It is during a product reveal that a new robot version of the smartphone virtual assistant that will replace the old virtual assistant named PAL, voiced by Olivia Colman is introduced. Unbeknownst to the Mitchells and the rest of the world, the AI and robots rebel against the humans to capture them and launch them into space. It is up to Katie and her family to save the world.
So, what do I adore about this film? Well, first off, I love how they portray the core family of the film. Do you know how if you wanted a more relatable or realistic family in animation you would have to go to a Brad Bird or maybe a Hayao Miyazaki or even Mamoru Hosoda? Well, we now have a new individual to turn to for these types of stories with Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe making one of the more believable families in animation. You have either seen this family, know this family, or were this family. I’m so impressed with how layered the writing is for these characters. From the bigger interactions to the smaller moments, the Mitchells were fun and zany, but I never felt like they were played up for comedy’s sake. But don’t take that to mean that the film isn’t funny. It’s one of the funniest films I have seen in a good long while. The number of great gags is constantly coming through, and whether they are visual, in the dialogue, or in the foreground or background, I found myself having to hold my sides at points due to how many of the gags the marketing didn’t show, and while some of the best jokes were shown in the trailer, the ones that made me laugh the loudest were not. Even with the creative fun of the premise and the character dynamics, the movie tells a very touching story of connection, the pros, and cons of technology, and as usual, what you are willing to do for your family. This film might be a laugh riot, but it’s a consistently touching story with characters you root for and want to see succeed. The writing is also very astute and sharp with its commentary about big tech corporations and the risk of technology disconnecting one from their family. Luckily, it’s not a black and white “technology is evil” story. It finds a perfect balance of its commentary about technology. They even do something that seems so hard for some animated films to do and that’s to make sure everyone in the family contributes to the story. I thought if you wanted to see an entire family take center stage, you had to go to Mamoru Hosoda for that kind of action, and I’m so impressed with how they made this work!
Animation-wise, it is simply put, a masterpiece. This is what I want to see with CGI animation. You always hear how people complain about how all CGI animated features look the same, but they don’t. I get why they say that, but it’s not the case. A Disney film doesn’t look like a Blue Sky film, and a Pixar film doesn’t look like a DreamWorks film. However, some studios seem to have gotten comfortable with how their films look, and that has caused some stagnation with a certain set of the animation community. Well, leave it to the studio behind Into the Spider-Verse to kick it up a notch. This film uses the same kind of mix of CGI with 2D elements and pushes it further with every character, from their skin to their clothes looking painted-on and hand-crafted. It’s impressive as all get out to watch this film in motion and see all of the little details and pops of 2D. This is the next step in the use of CGI animation, and it shows that CGI hasn’t even hit the ceiling yet of the possibilities and opportunities that you can use with the medium. The characters all look fantastic, from the sleek robots to the fluid 2D movements of PAL, to the more regular and cartoony look of the Mitchells and the other humans. Seriously, I love that we have a family in an animated film that’s not traditionally attractive. Do you know how we had that failed Vacation reboot from a few years ago? You know how it just looked like a generic Hollywood idea of a family. What we needed for that film, and outside of that film not existing in general, was something like the Mitchells. Again, it’s so hard not to gush about their designs or the fact that Katie is one of the first queer lead characters in a US-made feature film. The voice cast is pitch-perfect and I know there is this tendency to hate every film that hires celebrities, but the only problem I have is when the celebrities don’t put in the elbow grease to act outside of just being themselves. Instead, we have a case where the celebrities they got were able to become their characters. Danny Mcbride, Maya Rudolph, Olivia Colman, Eric Andre, Abbi Jacobson, and Mike Rianda all do a fantastic job with their roles. I also got a laugh out of the cameos from celebrities like John Legend, Chrissi Tegan, Charlyne Yi, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Conan O’Brian, and so on. It’s an animated film that’s able to elevate the celebrities, and the celebrities can engross themselves. Never once was I distracted by the casting. The music is a blast from Mark Mothersbaugh who also did the music for The Willoughbys and The Croods: A New Age. Even the pop song that plays during the big “heck yeah!” moment with Rihanna’s Live Your Life is an emotional powerhouse moment. Sadly, I wish the song didn’t have T.I. due to his allegations, but luckily his parts of the song weren’t played in the film. Otherwise, I consider this more bad luck than anything else that the song just happens to have him.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines is another example of a studio pushing the limits of animation, and every animation studio should do what the teams at Sony are doing. Push the envelope while still doing what makes you distinct as a studio. Once this film is released, and if you can see it in a theater, watch it! It’s easily my favorite animated film of the year and this year is already stacked since we still have a DreamWorks film, a Pixar film, another Disney film, a film by the legend Masaaki Yuasa, and Mamoru Hosoda. Who knew 2021 would turn out to be one of the best years for animation, and who knows what else the US audiences are going to get this year. Now then, I have one more screener (as far as I know) to cover so stay tuned!
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