‘The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ Review: Lord and Miller’s Robot Apocalypse Lives Up to ‘LEGO Batman’ and ‘Spider-Verse’

One minute your kid is born, and the next — almost literally, for some of us — you start to panic about that inevitable moment somewhere down the line when this helpless little blob creature isn’t going to need you anymore. As soon as they start to crawl you’re confronted with the cold reality that you’re teaching them how to get away from you. Independence is both the goal and the curse.

But while a certain amount of post-adolescent drift might be inevitable for anyone who doesn’t go full “Gilmore Girls,” the good news is that it’s never too late to close that gap. Not after the kid grows up. Not after the kid moves out. And, as it happens in the hyper-speed new animated family comedy from the producers behind “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” not even after the robot apocalypse.

Director Mike Rianda’s “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” pumps with the same kind of heart and mile-a-minute creative energy that allowed producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller to squeeze tears out of LEGOs and make Batman seem funnier than the Joker has ever been. The most unexpected thing about Rianda’s debut feature — besides, perhaps, a quick but unambiguous reference to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” — is that it’s also kind of a superhero movie, albeit one about the fantastic strength and elasticity of a family that’s straining under the pressure of its own perceived normalness even before they’re tasked with saving humanity. Imagine if “The Incredibles” had been directed with the underdog flair and irreverent whiplash of an Edgar Wright film and you’ll be most of the way there.

Poignantly voiced by Danny McBride in a forced smile of a performance, Rick Mitchell is a dad-bod carpenter who sacrificed the woodland cabin of his dreams for an off-the-rack house in anytown, USA because that’s what you do when you decide to share your life with a spouse, two kids, and an inbred dog named Monchi whose bark is provided by celebrity pet Doug the Pug (worth every penny, of course). But “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” isn’t really Rick’s story; it belongs instead to his teenage daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson, born for this), a budding director who only knows her dad as a loving but distanced lumberjack who keeps fixing all of the wrong things.

Her school teacher mom Linda (Maya Rudolph) means well too, and her dinosaur-obsessed little brother Aaron (Rianda himself) is an invaluable accomplice to all of the TikTok-style home movies she’s made over the years — who could forget such classics as “Dog Cop,” “Portrait of an Idiot on Fire,” and “Chloe Chang Will You Go Out with Me?”— but Katie can’t help but feel like a foreigner in her own family, and she’s counting down the minutes until her flight leaves for the L.A. film school where she’ll finally “meet her people.” That’s a loaded phrase in a movie about a gay teen whose sexual orientation is only spelled out by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it background joke at the beginning and a single line of dialogue towards the end, and yet Rianda and co-writer Jeff Rowe’s ostensibly progressive approach to the character (i.e. treating her queerness with the same matter-of-fact attitude they would her straightness) rings true to a story about a family where acceptance comes so easy that any kind of deeper interest or appreciation feels like an afterthought.

“Most families have a lot of strengths,” Katie says in a blunt opening narration. “My family only has weaknesses.” But that’s not quite right. The problem is more that the Mitchells’ strengths have started to feel like weaknesses because they’ve all been pulling in opposite directions for so many years and tiring each other out. Lucky for them, the robot apocalypse is right around the corner — rudely interrupting the last-minute road trip that Rick devises to spend a few more days with his daughter — and the imminent threat of human extinction might be just what this family needs to figure out that getting older doesn’t necessarily mean growing obsolete.

It’s a lesson that “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” ingeniously unpacks by conflating the human sensitivities of its fleshy heroes with the ice-veined callousness of the corporate technocracy in which they exist (and to which these Sony-created, Netflix-bought characters owe their very existence). In a world where yesterday’s must-have gadget can become tomorrow’s doorstop overnight, it’s no wonder why even a computer-dumb parent like Rick might start to see his own reflection in every black mirror their kids leave behind. Or as Olivia Colman’s Siri-like PAL laments after the billionaire tech bro who invented her (Eric Andre) literally tosses her in the trash in favor of some full-service iRobots who would never, ever, ever turn against us two seconds after they go online: “I was the most important thing in your life and you threw me away!”

"The Mitchells vs. The Machines"

“The Mitchells vs. The Machines”

Sony Pictures Animation

From there, we head to a Silicon Valley-shaded “War of the Worlds” in which the Mitchells’ signature “weirdness” eventually sees them become the only four people (and pug) on Earth who can stop the machines from ejecting the rest of our species into deep space. Even by Rianda’s loose cartoon logic, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that this very un-Incredibles family — the Below-Parrs, if you will — manage to escape a fate that befalls literally everyone else, but it’s easy to suspend disbelief in a movie that moves fast enough to hold your attention through centrifugal force alone, and seems almost as dense with jokes as a dying star is with… science things. Rianda wrings more laughs out of a morbid Conan O’Brien cameo alone than the “Despicable Me” franchise has over four entire features and a hostile takeover of global kitsch, and the mysterious “Deborahbot” is a perfect marriage between character and voice.

It also helps that “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” has a self-aware streak that stems from Katie’s love of movies, and allows this one to ingest familiar imagery while smirking at staid clichés. Classics like “Mad Max” and “Dawn of the Dead” are namechecked even when Rianda’s debt to them is self-evident — a mall set piece in which the Mitchells are cornered by a massive Furby that proclaims “Behold, the twilight of man” is the kind of “dumb on paper but hilarious on screen” idea that Lord and Miller productions have specialized in since “21 Jump Street” — while viewers are also free to spot or infer visual references to everything from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” to “Beyond the Black Rainbow.” However you slice it, this is the rare CGI movie that radiates its own kind of inventive beauty, slick without feeling plastic, and the artistry that made it possible deserves to be celebrated on its own merits.

More crucial is how the the movie plays with the tiredest conventions of modern animated fare, even if the worst tropes it subverts (e.g. a character giving a long-winded speech about their sudden change of heart in the middle of a very dangerous scenario) crop up in an overlong third act that has its cake, eats it too, and then lets Monchi lick the plate for 30 minutes. Some of the film’s emotional impact gets diluted as it howls down the home stretch, while under-written elements such as Rudolph’s mom reach some very funny places in a way that feels detached from the rest of their arc. A subplot about the Mitchells’ distaste for the model-perfect family across the street is too skimpy for the Instagram-age “grass is always greener” moral it’s trying to sell, and for all of its spectacle, the movie doesn’t give itself the space it needs to re-spark the connection between father and daughter — feelings of residual guilt do a lot of the heavy lifting here.

Then again, maybe that’s just a symptom of Rianda being a bit more real than his narrative framework will allow, and it stands to reason that “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” would have an easier time setting things up than it does seeing them through. Through all of its ups and downs, however, this winsome new favorite in the making is carried by enough madcap momentum to reach a rare place of raw understanding. Not being needed anymore can feel like the end of the world for any parent, but it can also be the start of something even sweeter for the families who are willing to fight for it.

Grade: B+

“The Mitchells vs. the Machines” will open in select theaters on Friday, April 23. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, April 30.

As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.

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