Easily the most heartfelt movie about family life that also includes a robot apocalypse and a pug often mistaken for a loaf of bread, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is an antic, irreverent animated delight that somehow doesn’t sacrifice depth even as it hurtles forward at breakneck comic speed.
Director Mike Rianda’s film, produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, shares much of the DNA of Lord and Miller’s other cartoon adventures (“The Lego Movie,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) in its ability to remake movie cliches with madcap irreverence, youthful zeal and a contemporariness that often eludes less freewheeling films.
“The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” which debuts Friday on Netflix (after originally being set for theatrical release from Sony Pictures), manages to spin through a sincere father-daughter relationship, our technology addictions, Instagram jealousy and general feelings of inadequacy while breezing though an end-of-the-world plot accidentally initiated by a reckless tech CEO. Oh, there are maniacal Furbys, too.
But for all its fast-paced zaniness, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” scripted by Rianda and his writing partner Jeff Rowe (also co-director), is basically a good old-fashioned family road trip movie, and the Mitchells slide in somewhere between the Griswolds and a more accident-prone Incredibles. They’re neither a hopeless clan nor a perfect one (usually the only two options in family movies), but a flawed, loving family.
Rick Mitchell (Danny McBride) is a devoted but distracted dad who, when faced with more complicated emotional issues, happily retreats to home improvement and woodworking. He and wife Linda (Maya Rudolph) have a daughter heading to college, Katie (Abbi Jacobson), a younger dinosaur-crazed boy named Aaron (Michael Rianda) and a dog named Monchi — a four-legged running gag. They all have their own interests but share a common smart-phone addiction. So when Rick suggests a dinner with “10 seconds of unobstructed family eye contact,” it’s excruciating torture for everyone.
When Katie is about to leave for college, her relationship with her father has reached a low point. Katie, an insanely creative budding filmmaker, can’t ever get him to pay attention to her creations. In a last-ditch stab at bringing them closer, Rick cancels her flight and the family drives across the country instead. Part of what’s great about “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is that, even though it’s a big-budget computer-generated animation, it pulses with a hand-drawn, DIY spirit. Along the way, Katie is filming and her work frequently bleeds into the movie, itself, redecorating the frame and sometimes taking it over. “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is simultaneously an ode to the creative possibilities at our finger tips and a warning to the greater dangers of digital dependence.
The latter is especially true once a newly launched phone turns diabolical overlord and scoops up the world’s population with little more than promises of free Wi-Fi. The Mitchells, by luck and pluck, are the only ones to go undetected, a success owed less to their intelligence than their imperfections. The engulfing dystopia makes for a dramatic and metaphorical backdrop for the Mitchells to work through their issues. What, after all, is more apocalyptic for a father than a daughter leaving home for college?
Rianda’s film drags some in the big finale as the Mitchells go to battle in Silicon Valley. The mom, and Rudolph, are a little wasted. But the father-daughter relationship is primary here, and it’s really wonderfully done. I think what “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” does so well is show how things evolve between parents and children with time. It’s a bond that’s permanent in so many ways but a relationship forever fluctuating with the pushes and pulls of growing up. The filmmakers are always cutting to old home movies and other memories of Rick and Katie in various stages through the years. In “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” family life is a brilliant, ever-changing collage.
“The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” a Netflix release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for action and some language. Running time: 114 minutes. Three stars out of four.