Animated films and television shows hold a special place very near and dear to my heart. Like most children, I grew up on a healthy dose of animation, whether in Disney movies, Ninja Turtles, Looney Tunes, or Animaniacs. It is hard to deny that animation is a big reason I do what I do today. In fact, even though my passion for entertainment began when I was four or five years old, I didn’t realize that I wanted to be involved in the industry until I saw Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993. After seeing that film, I began drawing and even begged my parents to take animation classes at our local community center. Even though I didn’t pursue a career in animation, it is impossible to deny the spark of creativity and imagination that all stemmed from being obsessed with The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines is the first time since Zootopia that an animated feature film has connected with me on all levels. The animation is absolutely sublime and stands out from anything that I have seen before. The story feels familiar but is unique thanks to a modern-day twist. The messaging is universal, and most who watch it will be able to resonate with what it has to say about growing up, self-discovery, and family. The social commentary is spot-on while also being timely and relevant. For a film that is all about celebrating and embracing individuality, complete with accepting one’s weirdness and uniqueness, it also celebrates togetherness. With so much of the film being about technology and entertainment, it oddly refreshing that its most impactful message is to remind its audience that often living in the moment is what matters the most.
This is one of those rare films destined to become a classic as more and more people continue to discover it. However, I do have mixed feelings about it being a Netflix title vs. a Sony title, mainly because most Netflix films thus far haven’t been as good as this film is. Don’t get me wrong; they have some good films but nothing yet that I would label as a modern-day classic. However, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is definitely a classic in the making. I can only hope that come awards season, audiences and critics alike remember it because it deserves to be a front-runner for Best Animated Feature.
You have to give credit where credit is due, and I think animation, very much like horror, serves as a genre where creative artists and storytellers can to do something unique and outside of the norma. Michael Rianda, Jeff Rowe, and the entire team behind this film clearly made something that not only felt very personal but served as an inventive way to tell a father/daughter story. There is a little something for everyone in The Mitchells vs. The Machines, and most importantly, it finds the perfect amount of humor and heart. I challenge anyone to watch this film and walk away from it, not feeling good.
In the span of just one week, I watched this film twice, once in preparation for the interview below with the film’s writer and director, Michael Rianda, and a second time just for fun. To me, the true test to any great movie, regardless if it is animated or live-action, is how well the film holds up on a second viewing. Unfortunately, I have found that many modern films don’t hold up well in my experience, and the magic gets lost when they are revisited. Needless to say, this isn’t always the case, and I am happy to say that The Mitchells vs. The Machines held up and was just as much fun to watch for a second time as it was for the first time.
If you have the opportunity to check out this film on Netflix, please do watch it. As I mentioned briefly above, I did have the opportunity to speak with Michael Rianda about the film. We discussed many things, including the blending of different animation styles and how they chose what films to pay homage to throughout the film.
SM: Hey Michael, how are you?
MR: Good. How are you?
SM: Good. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me. So, I got a chance to watch this movie this morning, and I loved it.
MR: Wow, thank you. That’s great. That’s wonderful to hear.
SM: This is probably one of my favorite animated films since Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. So, there you go.
MR: Ah, I love it. This is the best interview of the morning.
SM: (Laughs) So, I wanted to open this up because I know you’re relatively new to directing. You worked on Gravity Falls and did some other TV stuff, which was your feature film debut. Did you always want to work in animation, and how did you get your start?
MR: Yeah, no, I mean, yes. Like Aaron in the movie, I was always a very obsessive child. I was born into animation the way many were born into with the mutagen of childhood loneliness was poured on me, and I just had a lot of time on my hands. So, I drew a lot. The Simpsons and Ren & Stimpy inspired me, and all these shows tell my own stories and stuff. And basically, I went to school for illustration, and I realized that wasn’t really for me. And then, I tried to get into CalArts, and I got rejected. And then I was like, “I got to try harder.”
And, I got in the second time, and that was really when my world opened up because I started watching Pixar movies and watching all of these behind-the-scenes documentaries on how the animation is made. And, it was so exciting just as a medium, the possibilities of animation really electrified me. I think so many things in animation haven’t been touched yet, where it’s like, when I read indie comics as a teenager, I was like, “Whoa, they’re doing all this cool stuff that you could do in animation.” Like, you could tell adult stories, and you can use these formal tricks to sort of experience what it’s like to be in someone’s head, and all that stuff was fascinating to me.
So basically, when I got to CalArts, and I made all these great friends, including Jeff Rowe, with who I ended up writing and co-directing the movie. So, it was just wonderful. And then, I got my start by making a short film. You have to make three short films at CalArts. And, my third short film did relatively well. And basically, that’s how I got an internship at Pixar, and then I eventually met up with Alex Hirsch at Gravity Falls. And I was like, “Oh, this guy seems like he knows what he’s talking about.” And he’s like, “Look, if you want to make movies, we’re going to make 21 little movies.” “It’ll be like doing weights.” And that was really appealing to me. So I said, “Yes.” And then, we off to the races.
SM: Well, congratulations. That’s a great story.
MR: Thank you. There were a lot of failures on the way. But I really like cartoons, so I pushed through them all.
SM: Well, it’s fascinating. I mean, as you said, you started out doing internship work at Pixar, and then you moved to Disney. And now, I mean, someone posted this on Twitter yesterday, and I completely agree, Chris Miller and Phil Lord have become icons now in the animation world. Right? Like, The Lego Movie kind of changed the game, and then obviously, Spider-Verse was a big game-changer too. And now, you’re part of that family, so to speak.
MR: I’m a proud member.
SM: I’m sure. So, my question is, how do you feel doing something so unique in terms of animation? We really haven’t seen a lot of this style before and that I think is what a lot of the reviewers are saying, like “the film has a very distinct look to it and feels very different.” And, you can separate it from Spider-Verse. Spider-Verse when I saw it, I was like, “Whoa.” But, this film has its own style to it as well, where it kind of looks like a combination of anime and hand-drawn animation mixed with something else. So, how do you combine all those animation styles in one movie?
MR: I mean, it really was like making this movie; I feel like we were a bunch of like film students doing a bank heist or something. We’re like, “We’re getting away with it,” or whatever. Every step of the way, I was like, “Are they going to throw us in movie jail for this?” “We’re not supposed to put 2D on 3D.” But it was cool because we had all these really lofty intentions when we had the movie. I have this whiteboard that has all of our goals in the movie. And one of them is like, “Make sure that you love all the characters,” and blah, blah, blah. And 50 laughs, there should be 50 laughs with all these things. And one of them was like, “Do something unique with animation.” Because I’m like, “We’ve got one shot at it.”
Like people don’t let goofballs like me make animated movies, so I’m like, “Let’s swing for the fences, man.” And, it was awesome because Chris Miller and Phil Lord were like our enablers. They were like these crooked prison guards that were like, “Hey man, do whatever you want, the boss isn’t looking.” So, it was cool to have them encourage us to follow all of our ambitions that we might not sell people on ourselves because we’re so new. But having them behind us, we got to sort of make the movie look really unique and really do all of the weird ideas that we only dreamed of. So, that part of it was really cool. So, I feel like they really helped us out in that aspect.
SM: There’s just so much to admire about the film, not only on the animation side of things but also the story. Of course, one of the things that stand out, and we’re starting to see more and more stories like this, is the father/daughter story. Growing up, I can see from some of the references you made in the movie, you grew up watching a lot of movies from the 80s and the 90s, and they were very male, father stories, or male, mother stories, very few of them had that daughter/father story. But, not only did you do that, but you also managed to incorporate an LGBTQ element into the plot of the movie without shoving it down our throats. So thank you, first of all, for putting that in there and not forcing it in there. You just naturally made it part of who the character was.
Michael: I’m glad you like it, I mean, or glad you picked up on that because we’re really proud of it. Hopefully, it’s a small but meaningful detail. We worked with people on the team who were LGBTQ plus and had discussions with them and said like, “How can we do this in a way that feels natural and doesn’t feel shoe-horned in” It’s going to mean something to somebody, but not feel like exactly like we’re trying to… Because we’re not… Jeff and I are maybe not the right people to tell that story, but we had a team on our side, and they were like, “Oh man, we got to do it, we’ve got this chance, let’s do it.” And, they were able to sort of guide us and sort of figure out how to do it in a way that made sense for the film. And so, I’m thrilled with how it came out.
SM: And I also think on that same note, your inclusive cast, the voice cast, which is also amazing. And something that gets overlooked is that animation, just like many TV shows, has been very inclusive for a very long time. Eric Andre, Olivia Colman, and many others. Again, it is just something that I think you should be proud of for putting that in there and working with the casting director, who I know you worked with Lord and Miller previously on Lego Movie and films like that. But, I think that it’s just great that the film is so well-rounded. I also have to comment on the score too. I’m sorry, I feel like this is just coming off as like an admirer interview here, where I’m just saying how much I loved the film.
MR: (laughs) I DON’T MIND!!!
SM: The score was great; I loved it. And then also, can you talk about how you picked specific songs for the soundtrack?
MR: Oh yeah, sure. I mean, it’s funny, I mean, with every aspect of the movie, from the cast that you’re mentioning to this, a thing that I feel like I learned on Gravity Falls, and just an intuition that we’ve always had, and it’s just like if you fill the movie up with love, people will feel that and it’ll be shining off the screen at them, hopefully, if you do it right. And with all of the songs, we really made it a rule not to have a song unless we loved it. But, like, unless it was like one of our favorite songs ever, because it’s like you can pick any song, oftentimes some songs worked that we didn’t love. But in the scene, it was like, “Oh, this plays like a million bucks, but I don’t like that song.”
And, we felt like if we were coming at it from a place of love, and we were like, “We love Alex Lahey, let’s have her do an original song.” “And we love the Mae Shi, and we love Talking Heads, and Sigur Ros,” like all these bands, Sigur Ros. And that, like if basically, the movie felt like someone’s personal playlist, it would feel like gratifying. Just like when I watch a Wes Anderson movie or Quentin Tarantino movie, it’s like, I might not know about the songs, but I’m like, “This person loves these songs.” Like you could feel it. They’re these deep cuts on the album, and they’re not these like obvious songs. And so, we basically wanted to try to do that with the movie. And it was tough. I mean, because sometimes the song you want isn’t easy to get. The artist doesn’t want to release it, or it just doesn’t work in the moment or something. So, we worked with them, Kier Lehman, who is awesome, and he’s the music supervisor for Insecure, and a million awesome things and all the Lord and Miller movies. He’s so cool, and he could get us all the songs that we wanted and sort of figure out how to make it all work.
SM: So I’m curious, and I don’t know if you have been to asked this, but when a movie like this gets moved, this was obviously supposed to be released by Sony last year.
MR: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
SM: And then, it got switched over to Netflix. Does that impact you as a filmmaker in any way? And just out of pure curiosity, how do you feel about the change in distribution?
MR: Yeah. I mean, hey, dude, I love watching movies. I would run through a brick wall to see the most terrible movie with an audience right now. To be in a room with people eating popcorn, even if the movie’s bad. So, that element of it is something that I think is so valuable. And I think being in COVID is really makes you realize like, “Man, I love going to see movies, I can’t do it right now; it sucks.” But that being said, I think with the options in front of us, I definitely think we pick the right one because we just wanted to see one, Netflix has been great. They liked the original title of the movie, and we liked the original title. So, we were high-fiving like, “This is great.” So, that was really great. And then also, the other thing about them is like, families can see it safely and not worry about taking their kids to someplace that might be not safe. It’s hard to laugh at Furby jokes when you’re worried that you’re going to get sick. So, I’m just happy that people can see it, as soon as they can, as many people as they can, as safely as possible, so I’m delighted with it, even though I love to see movies in a theater.
SM: I wanted to ask about the homages to so many movies in the film. How many of those were you, how many of those were Jeff?
MR: I would say those were all me. But, it’s like Jeff loves those movies too, but it was oftentimes that the artist would be like, “Oh, hey, we need to fill this up with..” “What are the DVD covers?” So, I’m like, “Oh, give me three hours.” And then, I would type them up, like look at my movie collection and try to figure out funny names and stuff like that. But also, because all of us who worked on the movie love movies. So, if there’s a character in the movie who loves movies, we wanted it to feel authentic. And like, “Oh, she buys criterion collection DVDs, and she loves fast binder,” or whatever. So, and in addition to… Because I feel like we love really heady movies, like The Bicycle Thief or something, but we also love Airplane. And I think that that’s the kind of filmmaker Katie is, who sort of appreciates that stuff and wants to find a balance between what’s fun and what is really wonderful and artful. So, that was kind of our nod to all of our favorite movies.
SM: Yeah. The technology plot aspect of this movie reminded me of WALL-E meets Mars Attacks.
MR: Great. Hey man, I’ll take it.
SM: Hey, it was awesome talking with you, Mike. Hopefully, we’ll get to do this again soon.
MR: Sure. Yeah, man. It was awesome talking to you.
SM: Thank you so very much, and I wish you nothing but tons of success. I don’t know if, in the Netflix world, you would get a sequel; if it hits good enough numbers, how does this work?
MR: I think so. I mean, I think we’re not immune to that.
SM: I would love for another one, I really would.
MR: Cool. Hey man, well, tell your friends then.
SM: I will. Absolutely.
MR: All right, cool. Have a good day. Thank you so much