Movie Review: 'The Mitchells vs. the Machines' is a robot apocalypse for the whole family

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An animated family packed into a car and screaming.
The Mitchell family doing their darnedest to escape a robot apocalypse. (c2021 SPAI. All rights reserved.)

The Mitchells vs. the Machines is an animated action-comedy epic that looks like it was made for a giant screen, but there's something apt about the fact that it's also coming to our living rooms via Netflix in April 2021. "Family togetherness" has taken on a whole new meaning over the past year, and a lot of teens will relate to Katie (Abbi Jacobson), who loves her family more than she can say...and, in fact, would really prefer not to say and instead to head directly to college without passing go.

On screen as in life, the world had other plans. Thank goodness, the onscreen apocalypse doesn't come in the form of a pandemic ("Let's put a pin in that," says Maya Rudolph as Katie's mom Linda when the subject of death arises); instead, it's an army of avenging robots, laying siege to all of humanity at the behest of an outdated digital assistant (Olivia Colman) who commandeers her ambulatory would-be successors as her shock troops in a global conquest.

Co-produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), The Mitchells vs. the Machines was directed and co-written by Mike Rianda (Gravity Falls) — whose own family is described as "the 'real life' Mitchell family" in the movie's credits. The film makes a case for embracing your relatives despite their quirks; hardly a controversial lesson, but one that admittedly we all need to learn and relearn.

However lightheartedly it's handled, apocalypse of any sort is relatively untrod ground for an animated family film, and at its best The Mitchells vs. the Machines embraces the energy of action satires like Shaun of the Dead; a confrontation with angry appliances in a deserted shopping mall, the movie's funniest scene, inspires an explicit call-out to Dawn of the Dead.

The film's also enlivened by the vibrant, multilayered, comic-inspired style Lord and Miller have brought to their previous films; as well as by a voice cast that also includes SNL’s Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett as damaged robots, Conan O'Brien as an evil enforcer, and Chrissy Teigen and John Legend in priceless cameos as the Mitchells' Instagram-perfect next-door neighbors.

As Colman's character acknowledges at one point by going into sleep mode, though, a little big of warm and fuzzy goes a long way in a movie that does much better at crackerjack action than at prolonged emotional involvement. Pixar is the elephant in the room for filmmakers working in this space, and while that doesn't mean that no other studio's ever allowed to try to make you cry, it does mean they've set a precipitously high bar when it comes to endearing animation. At nearly two hours, Mitchells could probably stand to have lost 20 minutes or more of family drama; despite some charming gags, it takes way too long to get to the Machines part of the equation.

At least we have a fitting composer to guide us through this world: Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, who like Oingo Boingo's Danny Elfman has transitioned gracefully from quirky rock star to acclaimed film composer. His score strikes the perfect notes of electronic, yet also very human, emotion.


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