The Mitchells vs. the Machines
“The Mitchells have always been weird, and that’s what makes us great.” Actually, no. The Mitchells represent your standardised, homogenised, Hollywood approximation of the family, one comprising the aspergic son (cause unknown, but if you suggest one, be prepared to lose your medical licence), LGBTQ+ gender-fluid daughter (visually coded, but only obliquely referenced, yet sufficient to pounce on as a progressive and ground-breaking triumph), wise mom (with a preference to revealing her as hero figure because female) and remote, decontextualised father (because irrelevant white male authority figure who needs to learn his place). The question shouldn’t so much be who will win The Mitchells vs. the Machines, as The Mitchells are the Machines.
It’s abundantly evident from the opening titles on that this Netflix animation – actually Sony, planned for a 2020 release as Connected, but snapped up due to the coof – is cursed with the upbeat, sugar-rush infusion typical of Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s family-fare output. Remember how The Lego Movie was really quite good until it drowned in a sea of its own live-action vomit during the later stages? Somehow, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse escaped the gamut of shallow self-validation afflicting The Mitchells vs. the Machines at every turn, but I wouldn’t count on the Across the Spider-Verse sequels being as fortunate. The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ brand of individualism is one fashioned by committee and progressive bean counting. So naturally, it was one of Empire magazine’s Top 10 of the year.
At the centre of the movie – well, aside from the centre that is the benign father-daughter tension – is Katie (Abbi Jacobson) going to UCLA, and the opportunity to connect with others on her wavelength. Dad is understandably dubious about her creative skills, as we are privy to her appalling animation apps and horrid approximations of home movies that somehow earned her a place (maybe she just told them she was woke). The subjective screen is daubed with snapchat filters, memes, skits with her pet pooch – in affirmation of the meme-y video app salad dressing, it appears Monchi’s utterances are those of social media legend Doug the Pug – and “Kate-Vision”, the subjective eye of the “artiste”.
Many clearly find this endearingly “individual” but it’s about as appealing as a jotter covered in snot and doodles. And the less said about the screaming gibbon monkey YouTube memes the better. This is the moviemakers projecting themselves on their material in the most wretched and unearned manner: “The movies were always there for me”. It doesn’t help any that the protagonist’s look appears to be based on Mamie Gummer.
The opening statement “Every family has its challenges” is an invitation to a round of homilies, pat lessons and signposted messages. Every note of discord between Abbi and Rick (Danny McBride) is overindulged and under-fuelled. The themes of generational divide are emphasised on a creative and technological level, but the suggestion that “It’s about the balance between a guy who doesn’t believe in technology and the girl who really does and having them meet each other in the middle” is rather disingenuous. It isn’t as if they have to go and live in the woods as validation of Rick’s survivalist skills (in which regard, he actually seems resolutely inept, or persistently unlucky). No, it’s through Rick accepting the need to adapt to computers that a meeting of minds is wrought.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that a movie hewn from pixels should be in favour of tech, so any warnings of the same unchecked here are soft volleys. It’s only out-of-control advances that are scary, and certainly not your friendly iPhone (“I was the most important thing in your life, and you threw me away”). Lord and Miller at their best flourish an infectious irreverence, and that’s here in spots – “Who would have thought a tech company wouldn’t have our best interests at heart?”; “It’s almost like stealing people’s data and giving it to a hyper-intelligent AI as a part of an unregulated tech monopoly was a bad thing” – but this robot plan is one about disposing of humans, not quite the ultimate destination of the transhumanist agenda. There are thus subtle pro-transhumanist clues here, such as malfunctioning robots Eric and Deborahbot, who accept Linda (Maya Rudolph) as their parent (“Thank you, mother. We are now your beautiful baby boys”). It’s like that Ridley Scott series, but in reverse.
The most resistible aspect of The Mitchells vs. The Machines, though, is its immersion in happy gushy feely emotive pap (Ren Hoek would convulse). This ranges from Pixar-appropriate, nostalgic home movies to a decidedly unthreatening tech apocalypse; director Mike Rianda discussed how the project went from “a little too dark” to “happy music and bubble wrap popping sounds when the lasers capture someone”. Thus, the “happy” median is empty-calorie validation. When you have a grossly manipulative line like “Did you know, ninety percent of calls from mums are ignored?”, it’s no surprise to learn Rianda fielded a call with “Mom, I can’t talk to you right now. I’m really busy making a film about how much I love you”. Which is quite ghastly, when you think about it.
Additionally, there are some days, through no fault of one’s own, one comes across two Olivia Colman movies in quick succession. I had no idea she featured here, and having suffered through The Last Daughter beforehand, I was in a less than receptive mood. Colman’s PAL is the spurned virtual assistant of the tech billionaire saviour – the latter, we learn, is simply misguided. Such an excuse won’t wash in the real world.
There are intermittent laughs in The Mitchells vs. The Machines, but far fewer than I expected: “Dog. Pig. Loaf of bread”; “It’s like a Journey album cover”. Such glaring shortfalls haven’t prevented it becoming Netflix’s most-viewed animation. Its manner assumes you will find it an unbridled delight, but the cloying, insipid, inclusive messaging quickly wears one out. “Behold! The twilight of man” indeed.
First published by Now in Full Color on 09/02/22.