Over the past couple of weeks Sony Pictures Animation and Netflix have received a lot of buzz around their newest animated offering “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”. One of many victims of the 2020 pandemic canceling theatrical releases, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” was originally set for the big screen under the name “Connected” but was eventually marketed to Netflix for 2021. Co-written and co-directed by Mike Rianda, one of the creative minds behind “Gravity Falls”, and Jeff Rowe, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” stars an impressive voice cast consisting of Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph and Mike Rianda himself who become the only humans remaining after an Artificial Intelligence named PAL, voiced by Olivia Coleman, goes rogue using experimental robot prototypes to capture every human on Earth. The dysfunctional group become humanity’s last hope leading them on a journey where they also reconnect as a family. Charming, eye catching and engaging, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” could have been just goofy fun but ends up packing plenty of heart proving Sony Pictures Animation might actually know what they’re doing with the right creative minds on board.
It’s worth noting that “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is Sony’s first original animated picture released in America since 2017 where they went down in cinema infamy with “The Emoji Movie”. Since then, the studio has found success with adaptations of IPs and sequels, including properties like “Peter Rabbit”, “Goosebumps”, “The Angry Birds” and even an alternate telling of the “Nativity Story” with “The Star”. In 2018 they hit their biggest milestone with the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” which debuted a unique animation style that seems to have somewhat carried over to the eye-popping “The Mitchells vs. The Machines”, which is arguably one of the studio’s best movies to date. On the surface “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” doesn’t look like much. A story about a dysfunctional family trying to fight off a robot invasion seems pretty basic for today’s cinema, but what sets this movie apart from its predecessors is the heart and themes writer and director duo Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe inserted into the story.
The narrative follows Katie Mitchell, an aspiring filmmaker, and her technophobic father Rick, dinosaur-loving younger brother Aaron and their devoted mother Linda who over the years have drifted apart due to their differing interests as well as the growing use of social media and smartphones. This is where the movie gets its core message. The previous release title of “Connected” would have been appropriate because this film is all about rekindling that personal connection that technology seems to have eroded away. The Mitchells are forced to bond once again to save the world when technology, in the form of an evil smartphone, decides to take over. Honestly it’s a bit hypocritical for Sony of all companies, a studio that LOVES to insert its own technological products into its films, to preach about how we have lost touch with each other due to technology, but I actually think the fact that the studio let Rianda and Rowe’s message of connectivity speak loud and clear adds legitimacy to them as a studio to spread important messages even if it feels contrary to their business model.
The fact that the film is cast with capable and talented actors behind the characters helps with the likes of Abbi Johnson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Mike Rianda, Olivia Coleman, Eric Andre, Fred Armisen and others doing an excellent job creating believable chemistry, charming humor and plenty of human emotion for audiences to embrace. What could have been a simple phoned-in story balances action, comedy and social commentary just well enough to feel insightful and meaningful without coming off as preachy and self-righteous. The idea that technology is corrupting the family dynamic is an important and timely lesson to teach kids these days with smartphones and the like becoming more and more relevant, but there are also lessons for the adults where the father Rick has to learn to evolve to relate to his social media-using daughter and the mother Linda finds herself constantly comparing her family to their neighbors because they look perfect on social media. The idea of finding your own identity away from the computer and embracing what makes you and your loved ones unique in a world where we are too often drawn to the fantasies presented to us on social media is at the core of this energetic family adventure and yet the film doesn’t fail to provide the essential child-friendly entertainment you’d expect at a brisk, smooth pace.
The animation is also a huge part of why this movie works so well. The art style feels like a 3D rendering of drawings straight from an artistic teenager’s scrapbook which gives it a unique look reminiscent of the comic book-like style Sony pioneered with “Into the Spider-Verse” but it never feels like a straight up copy bringing its own unique personality to the table. I thought it was creative and fun to look at mixing the familiar with original ideas, both in story and in aesthetic, in a way that never feels like any other animated movie on the market and yet it also feels purely Sony. A lot of the action set pieces are also fun and creative especially one inspired scene (as shown above) where the family has to fight off a giant Ferby of all things and the engaging finale which might be one of the most entertaining finales in an animated feature I’ve seen since “Spider-Verse” itself. There’s also plenty of East eggs and fanfare that begs you to watch the film a few more times over and you probably won’t mind because it really is a fun time. I’m not overselling it when I say this is one of the most purely enjoyable and charming Netflix movies and non-Disney or Pixar animated movies I’ve seen in quite some time.
By allowing directors Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe to embrace their unique vision Sony has proven that they are not above allowing for a higher level of creativity with their animated films. While Sony Pictures Animation rarely hits it out of the park, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is a definite home run. Fast paced, colorful, and bursting with personality while also containing relevant theming asking all of us to remember that true connection doesn’t require a smart phone of a “like”, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is a perfect modern family film with plenty to offer all ages who are willing to give it a chance. This film is a fine example of what can happen when studios allow creative minds the freedom to explore their visions properly. While there is some pandering involved, because this is a kids movie after all, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” rises above any ounce of familiarity it contains bringing a surprising amount of originality and more than enough heart to earn my respect.