Movie Review – The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021)

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The Mitchells vs. the Machines, 2021.

Directed by Michael Rianda.
Starring Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Michael Rianda, Olivia Colman, Eric André, Chrissy Teigen and John Legend.

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SYNOPSIS:

A dysfunctional family find themselves as humanity’s last hope – the only people who manage to avoid captivity when a tech company inadvertently brings about a robot apocalypse.

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There’s no hotter quality in family cinema than Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Whether it’s their work as writer-directors on Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie or their producing gig on the monster-hit Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, they have had a consistent and compelling output in the animated sphere. There’s a certain expectation that comes with a “Lord and Miller production”, and it weighs heavily. Thankfully, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is able to – mostly – shoulder the burden of its A-list producing team.

It’s a textbook animated adventure setup, anchored by the sort of dysfunctional family we’ve all seen many times before. Katie (Abbi Jacobson) is a creative young woman on the cusp of attending film school, but her father Rick (Danny McBride) doesn’t understand how she can make money from her surreal short movies. He decides to turn her university flight into a last-minute family road trip, with mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) and dinosaur-obsessed younger brother Aaron (director Michael Rianda) in tow. Naturally, this happens just as tech supremo Mark Bowman (Eric André) accidentally brings about a machine apocalypse masterminded by his smartphone AI Pal (Olivia Colman).

The sci-fi elements of the plot provide plenty of opportunity for director Rianda and his team to spread their animation wings. There are some impressive action sequences and some fun, comic book-style interludes built around Katie’s films and drawings. Certainly, the movie throws absolutely everything at the wall visually and, for all of its invention, it sometimes threatens to detract from the story being told. At times, things get a little too hyper-active.

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Indeed, the film is at its best when it relaxes into the smartly-written script by Rianda and Jeff Rowe. Fans of Lord and Miller’s work will no doubt be pleased by its onslaught of puns and there’s also a rich vein of self-referential humour running through it. It’s also a movie about familial affection through overcoming differences between generations, which will always tug at even the hardest of heartstrings. That’s not to mention some great gags about evil technology companies and an enjoyably villainous against-type performance by the usually-so-lovely Olivia Colman. “British Villain” is certainly a trope but, as with everything else she does, Colman gives it a gravitas and a sense of fun.

It’s on less sure-footed ground when the third act comes around and Rianda sets into a rather generic adventure finale. Much of the wit and sharp invention is tossed aside in favour of pretty standard set pieces and action beats. It’s in these scenes that the characters fall entirely into tropes – the oafish, Luddite father and the put-upon, smart-but-ignored super-mum – and lose the texture that made them so interesting and likeable in the early part of the movie. After such a patient build-up, it becomes a paint-by-numbers sprint to the finish.

Notably, the potential intrigue of Katie being a queer character is reduced to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line of dialogue at the end, and the Pride pin social media users noted in the trailer. Meanwhile, her much younger brother gets a lengthy romantic subplot about sharing a love of dinosaurs with the daughter of the Mitchells’ comedically perfect neighbours – the parents are voiced by Chrissy Teigen and John Legend in a neat send-up of their online personas. It’s disappointing to see an animated film bound for such a huge audience via Netflix make so little of such a potentially significant step forward for LGBTQ+ representation.

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The Mitchells vs. The Machines doesn’t work 100% of the time, but in many ways it’s a victim of high expectations more than its own failings. As a family movie with an absurd sense of humour and an inventive visual style, it really flies – even if it suffers from an under-powered finale and an over-inflated running time. Given the relative paucity of big family blockbusters over the course of the last year, this serves as a warm-hearted and enjoyable treat for those with a Netflix subscription.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★

Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.

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