All at once — a funny, dynamic family romp, an intelligent exploration of parent-child relationships, and an astute takedown of Silicon Valley tech barons, The Mitchells vs. the Machines accomplishes more of substance with its wild, colorful antics than most serious adult films could dream of. There are complexities here that belie its status as a kids’ movie, but the more substantial plot elements and character beats are dealt with such a lightness of touch that it’s still able to maintain a fun, quirky energy. The intrepid Mitchells are the perfect conduit for this story, and they effortlessly win over their audiences, body, and soul.
The Mitchells are an ordinary, albeit strange and dysfunctional, family. Their teenage daughter Katie (Abbie Jacobson) is an aspiring filmmaker, and she’s mere days away from starting a new life at film school in California when her well-intentioned but clueless dad (Danny McBride) decides on a whim to cancel her plane tickets so that they can have a cross-country family road trip. The intention, it would seem, is to get them all to bond one last time before being separated, but forcing any kind of emotional interaction with a teenager is a fool’s errand, and it doesn’t go particularly well. That is until the tech company that has a monopoly on all of their electronics launches a misguided update that leads to nothing less than a full-on apocalypse scenario, complete with intimidating robot overlords. Suddenly, the Mitchells are the last people on Earth left uncaptured, and it’s up to them to save all of humanity.
Although the Mitchell family is embroiled in interpersonal conflict throughout the film, they still somehow manage to come across as incredibly warm and loving. The Mitchells vs. the Machines treats each member of the family with empathy, even the parents, who are traditionally portrayed in kids’ movies as dumb or out of touch. There are efforts made to flesh out all of the Mitchells, making them feel like real flesh and blood individuals. They’re not just archetypes (the angsty teenager, the nerdy brother, etc.); they’re people with thoughts and feelings and personal histories.
The dynamic between Katie and her father, Rick, is especially compelling. The teenage daughter who’s growing up into her own person, the father who desperately wants to connect with her but doesn’t even have the first clue where to start — this relationship is intensely relatable. It adds a mature tinge of melancholy to an otherwise family-friendly adventure. Rick wants to return to a simpler time, not just one without the burden of technology hanging over their heads, but one where he and his daughter could understand each other like they could when she was five years old. Katie, by contrast, has her eyes on the limitless potential of the future and needs her father to meet her where she is instead of pining for a version of the past.
It initially seems like The Mitchells vs. the Machines is going to take a pretty strong anti-technology stance. “These kids need to put down their cell phones for once and go play outside” feels like the vibe it’s going for. But it actually does an excellent job of advocating for balance. Yes, being obsessed with social media and neglecting the real world isn’t a good thing, and there will always be tech companies that make self-serving, unethical decisions that hurt people. But at the same time, technology can spark such creativity and innovation that it shouldn’t be ignored altogether. Because it strikes this balance, it’s able to make its points without coming across like it’s sermonizing.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines has a loud, frenetic, quirky sense of humor but never talks down to its audience. It hypothesizes that we’re all a bunch of weirdos in our own way, and it takes a chance on jokes that might fly under the radar for some viewers and absurdist set-pieces that might not appeal to everyone. It leaves everything on the table and assumes that even if all the jokes don’t land for you, they’ve thrown enough stuff at the wall to make it an enjoyable experience. It’s a gamble that pays off.
In a way, the style of humor mirrors Katie’s journey to find “her people.” It’s invigorating to know that there’s someone else out there who finds the idea of Furbies as members of a tiny, evil society complete with rituals and prophecies and a giant Furby leader, and that’s what you get here. Bizarre, outlandish, surrealist humor that will land in a big way if it’s your style. It utilizes more cartoonish animation layered on top of animation to showcase how Katie’s imagination is literally bursting onto the screen, and the end result is a visual style overflowing with energy.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines is an example of animated storytelling firing on all cylinders. With its witty, irreverent battle of an ordinary family against an army of murderous robots, it manages to be both emotionally evocative and wildly funny. The way that it thoughtfully approaches both its characters and narrative elements allows it to develop such a richness, a depth of flavor, that should prove captivating to children and adults alike.