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Mitchells Vs The Machines, The (2020)

No animation studio can be said to have so successfully reinvented themselves as Sony Pictures Animation. In just a few years, they have transformed from the studio infamous for creating the critically panned Emoji Movie to being the studio known for releasing the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. And it was no one-off, as the Studio's upcoming slate is unlike any other studio in Hollywood.

The Mitchells Vs The Machines was originally scheduled for cinema release in September of 2020, but had its release put on hold (we all know why). Sony subsequently sold the film to Netflix, where it arrives on April 30, 2021.  The film is written and directed by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, previously best known for their work on the TV series Gravity Falls.  Sony's good luck charms Phil Lord and Chris Miller are producers, alongside Kurt Albrecht, Daniel Chuba, and Carey Smith.

Reportedly inspired by Rianda's own family, the film centres on the eccentric clan of the title. Misfit eldest daughter Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is on the cusp of adulthood, preparing to leave home to follow her dream of studying film in California. Katie was once close with her father Rick (Danny McBride) but have drifted apart. Fearing he'll miss the chance to reconnect with her for good, Rick decides to take the whole family- including Mum Linda (Maya Rudolph) little brother Aaron (Rianda himself) and pet dog Monchi- on a cross-country road trip to try and mend their relationship. But things take a very unexpected turn when their trip is derailed by the robot apocalypse and the Mitchells find themselves humanity's last hope.

The film has been produced using a technique that is an evolved version of the one used to give Spider-Verse its unique look. Visually the two films look quite distinct from each other, but the animation in both is used to give CG animation a real hand-drawn look. Here it's used to give everything an imperfect look, without straight lines and glossy texture. This is done with incredible attention to even the smallest detail- check out the slap-dash, imperfect way that Katie's nail varnish is applied. What is applied to the character is also applied to the environments, with the backgrounds and props drawn in a style that allows them to fit in perfectly with their surroundings. This is used to contrast anything organic or traditional with the world of technology, where the robots, computers and phones are depicted through more slick and shiny traditional-looking CG animation. A notable exception being the Mitchell's family car- the old banger is depicted in a looser style, perhaps giving it the sense that it's more of a character than a mere vehicle.

The story is very much told through Katie's eyes, with her narrating throughout. We're frequently reminded of the fact as the film is stylised in a similar style to Katie's home movies. So often we'll see annotations or images 'drawn' on the screen emoji-style in reaction to events. Or we'll cut briefly to a 2D animation sequence, with a scrapbook aesthetic. This starts from the very beginning, with some amusing modifications to the Studio logos, and continues throughout, giving the film a brilliantly punky style. There are even occasional live-action inserts, but thanks to the film's collage style, it doesn't seem too out of place.

It opens in the middle of the action, with the family on the run from Robots. We then skip back in time to set up how we got there. This first 'proper' introduction to the Mitchells is incredibly effective in establishing each family member's personalities and unique quirks. Yes, it's extremely funny, but there's a lot of truth in the characterisation (perhaps due to Rianda's real-life inspiration). In Katie and Rick's fractured relationship, both sides are drawn sympathetically. As such it's easy to empathise with them both.

Due to a runtime that is extremely generous in animation terms,  the film is able to take its time in the 'normal' part of the road trip, before the robots show up. It provides us with plenty of great gags but also does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of character development.

The film's very concept could so easily have turned into lecturing the younger generations about obsessing over their digital devices, but it didn't really turn out that way. There are a few gags about society's overreliance on technology and Rick does rail against his family's phone use, but there are as many jokes at the expense of the elder Mitchell's luddite, out-of-touch ways.

Through the robot's builders Bowman Industries and their Zuckerberg-like boss Mark Bowman (Eric Andre), there's some pretty pointed satire at the expense of tech giants like Apple, Google and Facebook. The vengeful virtual assistant at the head of the uprising- named Pal in what is surely an allusion to cinema's most infamous rogue A.I., 2001's Hal- is essentially Alexa or Siri turned evil. Giving 'her' the friendly, mumsy voice of the wonderful Olivia Colman was a masterstroke, too.

When the uprising does happen, it results in an impressively mounted action set-piece. With dozens of 'bots descending on the unsuspecting humans, it's fast-moving, thrilling and brilliantly choreographed as the Mitchells try to evade capture- and yet it never stops being funny.

And that's just the first of several equally impressive action sequences dotted throughout the film. From car chases to a thrilling sequence in a shopping mall or the visually spectacular climactic sequence in the robot's Silicon Valley stronghold, every one of them is excellent. It confirms that Sony's animators are more than capable of holding their own against any of the more established Hollywood Studios.

The film may have a pretty cartoony style, but that doesn't mean that there isn't some really arresting imagery. Apocalyptic vistas with hundreds of robots descending from the skies make it a real shame that we didn't get the chance to see this on the big screen. It happened to debut on streaming, but this is still a very cinematic film, with a pretty epic scope.

Everything sounds as good as it looks, too. The cast turn in uniformly excellent. Jacobson's work on Disenchantment proved she was a natural at voice acting and she turns in another great performance that makes it seem effortless. Cast somewhat against type, it's an unusually warm character for McBride, but he does a damn fine job. Rudolph brings heart, humour and badassery to the part of Linda. Special mention must also go to Doug The Pug, credited with providing the growls and barks of the family's lovably gormless dog, Monchi. He's a good boy.

There are some killer song choices on the soundtrack, too- particularly excellent use of Battle Without Honour and Humanity, the track best known for appearing in Kill Bill. The original score from Mark Mothersbaugh is also very good, especially the Daft Punk/Tron Legacy style electronica played during the assault on Silicon Valley.

Being a fantastic looking movie that is both extremely funny and exciting would be enough to make this well worth watching. However, beneath all that lies the film's secret weapon- a very human heart. Under all their eccentricities, the Mitchell's clearly love each other. Rianda took inspiration from his own "crazy/delightful" family, so it's in some ways a very personal film. It really shines through in the way their relationships are depicted, making it feel unexpectedly real. Considering how madcap and crazy much of the film is, you might be caught unaware when the film's end brings a tear to your eye. But the way the narrative wraps up, followed by a credit sequence that includes real-life family snaps of the cast and key crew, may well do just that. (A friend tells me, cough).

With its meme references, lo-fi home movie stylings and Gen-Z emotional earnestness, The Mitchells and The Machines feels like a very young, contemporary movie. It even does this while never feeling like it's pandering in any way. With this and Spider-Verse, this seems to be something that SPA has perfected more effectively than any other major studio.

The Mitchells Vs The Machines is an impressive achievement by any metric, but as Rianda and Rowe's feature debut it's simply incredible. We can't wait to see where their careers go next.



IN A NUTSHELL: A gorgeously animated, sharply written must-see that is both a hilarious twist on apocalyptic sci-fi and a love letter to family.



*Advanced screener provided by Netflix*