The Mitchells vs. the Machines

At the Movies Blog

Danny McBride (who as an animated character looks like the dad in The Incredibles) is bothered by the technology.

I meant to review this a few weeks ago when it came out, but there were so many other pictures to cover. And perhaps the fact that I was so disappointed by the Oscar-nominated animated shorts, I was burned out on animation. Yet I ended up being pleasantly surprised when my wife and I logged onto Netflix, and were immediately blown away by the vibrant visuals Sony Animation gave us, as well as some surprisingly hip hilarity.

The Phil Lord/ Christopher Miller team didn’t impress me with their 21 Jump Street films or the overrated LEGO movie, but they gave us Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and the brilliant Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This duo teamed with Michael Rianda (Gravity Falls) for this story about a dysfunctional family, fighting in the midst of a robot-apocalypse. 

Kate Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is an aspiring filmmaker who eagerly looks forward to college; partly to get away from her crazy family, but also because she wants to make movies. She’s already bonded online with some of future film classmates.

Her dad Rick (perfectly voiced by Danny McBride) is clueless, and he just yearns for the happier times when his kid laughed at his moose calls and other shenanigans. At the table, he demands everyone put away their phones and have “10 seconds of uninterrupted eye contact.” The visual of that is hysterical.

Linda (Maya Rudolph) is the mother, who rolls her eyes at Rick’s silliness, and sometimes has to coach him on what to say to fix his relationship with Kate even if it means holding up cue cards he can read from over Kate’s shoulder. Other times, she admits he “just went rogue” like when he cancels her plane ticket to college so they can take a family road trip instead. Part of my problem with that is, this is going to cause her to miss an orientation, and meeting these new students she’s already connected with, who don’t feel she’s “different” the way her classmates in high school did. To me, that’s kind of an unforgivable act on dad’s part.

I thought Kate’s movies were really cute and clever, until I found out she was almost a college student. They felt more like cute home movies a 12-year-old would create. My wife said in defense, “Well, they want this movie to appeal to younger kids, too.”

While that’s probably true, but I’m remembering the funny movies that were made in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and I yearned for a bit more edge to her flicks. 

The story kicks into high gear when a Silicon Valley big wig named Mark (Eric Andre), the CEO of PAL (who will have a robot talk like HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey), quickly realizes that Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Even if that woman is Alexa. She’s voiced by Olivia Colman, and it’s the best thing she’s ever done (and I loved her in The Father). Her anger and sarcasm is brilliant.

The CGI and animation that pops up is all clever and colorful. It reminded me of the criminally underrated Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (which has just been upgraded and re-released to some theatres). It made the cartoons in Kate’s movies or notebooks really come to life and a lot of fun.

The first half of the movie is amazing. The second half though, is merely serviceable. Seeing the robots and monolithic ships, and hearing a keyboard score that made me think of Blade Runner, just wasn’t as fun (although I did enjoy the joke that only those of us over 50 will get — that all the robots and rockets looked like a Journey album cover).

There were still terrific moments — Furby’s attacking, or Roombas, or even when Kate compares her dad to a popular monkey screaming video (and we see the actual video, the same way Family Guy cleverly shows real clips included in their animation). Yet seeing so many YouTube style clips and words flashing on screen, was just overdone. The movie gets a bit unfocused. 

There are two robots that end up working with the Mitchells, and they bring great comic relief. My wife loved how the robots couldn’t tell if the pet Pug was a dog, pig, or a loaf of bread.

The little brother character Aaron (Michael Rianda) never quite works. He’s obsessed with dinosaurs, and painfully awkward around others.

A number of the jokes also felt dated, as they referenced things that are a bit old now (although it’s got to be tough writing and producing a movie, that comes out a few years after the script was originally conceived).

Surprisingly, enough of the jokes did work to make the whole thing entertaining (although it’s not really for young kids). I loved how Mom Linda, the most normal of the family, even has her flaws. She’s upset by her perfect neighbors (John Legend, Christy Tiegen) always posting their gorgeous family photos and vacation videos. I did adore how at the end when she hugs Kate, and Kate pleads, “You’re hugging me too hard,” Linda says, “You love it. You love it!” It was done in a voice that I can only imagine Rudolph nailing just perfectly.

There were many jokes that fell flat, but a lot of them landed. For example, when the robots first start attacking humans, and what they say to entice them. One segment ends with them convincing a stoner kid to go into the “fun pod” as he says in his dopey voice, “Yeah. I like fun.”

The father, sensing they’re doomed, tells his family, “I love the dog! You love the dog. But…be prepared to eat the dog!”

Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh provides the score (he’s done many movie scores over the years). And, it was cool to hear a David Byrne song, but I would have gone with the Talking Heads “Road to Nowhere.” I also thought there could have been a way to slip in the Flight of the Conchords “The Humans are Dead” which is all about robots taking over and killing all life on Earth.

The film was formulaic, and a bit longer than it needed to be, but my wife and I enjoyed watching it. Most people will.

3 stars out of 5. It’s a shame you can’t watch these dazzling visuals on the big screen, but you can catch it on Netflix. 

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