In recent years, ‘produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller’ has started to carry a similar prestige in the animated film world to the real titans of the medium, from Pixar to Cartoon Saloon. With The Lego Movie and Into the Spiderverse, they gave us visually stunning, hilarious, and surprisingly moving action-adventures that ended up as easily the best American animations of the year, and that streak continues with The Mitchells vs the Machines, another gorgeous and hyperactive caper, this time through a robot apocalypse.
Just as The Lego Movie and Spiderverse introduced us to animation styles we’d never really seen on the big screen before, Mitchells vs Machines blends different techniques together to create genuinely unique visuals. Writer-directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe mix together pristinely detailed CGI, hand-drawn elements, and wacky sketch art, the end result being both instantly iconic and a perfect fit for the story, which sees tradition and technology collide as the Mitchell family strive to reverse an evil AI’s global conquest.
Daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson) – about to leave home to go to film school – adores technology, which has allowed her to make movies and find friends, but her dad Rick (Danny McBride) is more of a luddite, mystified by smartphones and always wanting to take his family on hikes. Their contentious relationship is the heart of the film, their different worldviews and skillsets initially dividing them but soon proving complementary as they take on the forces of PAL (Olivia Colman), an AI assistant gone very, very rogue, rounding up all the humans on earth to shoot them into space and create a perfect robot society.
There’s a lot of plot to get through in the first 20 minutes of the movie, which eventually leaves the Mitchells – rounded out by kindly mum Linda (Maya Rudolph), dinosaur-obsessed younger son Aaron (voiced by Rianda), and absurdly squishy pug Monch – as the last free people in the world, but it’s done incredibly cleanly. Even with so much to set up, nothing ever feels like it’s bogging the film down, and a steady stream of big laughs and kinetic set-pieces ensures that the nearly two-hour runtime simply flies by.
Rianda and Rowe take a refreshingly even-handed approach to the issue of ‘these kids and their dang phones’, acknowledging the shortcomings of modern tech and social media, but also open to the opportunities and joys they can bring. This forces Mitchells vs Machines to dodge the obvious generation gap cliches that you might assume you’d find in a film like this, and also to find jokes in more unexpected, funnier places, from robotic workplace conflicts to cosmic nihilist Furbies.
It’s fast, funny, and frenetic, but Rianda and Rowe also leave plenty of time to really dig into Katie and Rick’s changing relationship as Katie evolves into her own person, and it is deeply affecting as the pair learn that you can’t always engage someone entirely on your own terms, especially someone you love. It’s a bolder, more complex message than most kids’ films would shoot for, and the fact that Rianda and Rowe can deliver in the midst of a giant aerial battle against a fleet of killbots is what makes Mitchells vs Machines so special.