Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is preparing to attend film school, and she can’t wait. Mostly because it gets her away from her dysfunctional family, especially her well-meaning but clueless father Rick (Danny McBride). In a last attempt at family bonding, Rick decides to drive Katie to college with a family road trip. Halfway there, however, the Mitchells find themselves in the middle of danger as a rogue AI in Silicon Valley has activated an army of robots in an attempt to conquer the planet and subjugate all humans. The family finds itself in the unlikely position of being humanity’s last hope for survival. This is The Mitchells Vs. The Machines, and to quote Katie herself: “Super sorry, everyone.”
An interesting fact about the film is that during production it had its titled changed to the relatively generic Connected before having it changed back once Netflix picked it up for distribution. Honestly, that says a lot about the film itself. This is a film with a ton of genuine character, style, and quirkiness. Calling it something as bland and colorless as Connected could never do it justice.
Animated in a style very similar to Into The Spider-Verse, The Mitchells is full of vibrant visuals with a personality all their own. 3D and 2D get mixed together, the styles change in moments of extreme emotion, and there is always a distinct sense of coherency and flow. It’s complimented perfectly by Mark Mothersbaugh’s electronic score, a mix of classic cinema, 8-bit video game eleganza, and power pop. On a purely audio/visual level, there’s almost nothing to complain about here. Although the action often gets quite/almost a little too ridiculous (cartoon physics are 100% in effect here), it’s never, ever dull.
Similarly, the characters are all perfectly cast. Abbi Jacobson and Danny McBride both infuse their characters with depth and sincerity, playing off each other like a real father and daughter. They’re joined by excellent performances by Maya Rudolph as matriarch Linda and writer/director Mike Rianda as Katie’s dinosaur-obsessed younger brother Aaron. Rianda actually steals most of the scenes he’s in, to be honest; Aaron is made up almost entirely of hilarious asides and perfect comedic delivery. And we can’t forget Olivia Colman, voicing PAL, the rogue AI who starts this whole “Vs. The” thing in the first place. Imperious and arrogant, but surprisingly vulnerable and nuanced, she gets a lot of mileage out of playing what’s basically an emoji face on a smartphone screen.
Rianda’s also written a very solid, compelling narrative for his characters, as well. The dialogue all seems natural, the humor both off-the-wall and very much on-brand for the idiosyncratic universe he’s created around the Mitchell family. While several beats are seen coming a mile away — for all it’s quirkiness, it still hews distressingly close to the standard animated story arcs — a lot of it can be easily forgiven by how it’s framed. It’s hard to get mad at a stunningly obvious (and even clumsy) third-act plot twist when you just saw the Mitchells square off against an army of murderous Furbies and weaponized vending machines.
One of the best parts about The Mitchells is also one of the quietest, though. Katie was conceived of and written as queer, a fact that goes largely without fanfare. Her design includes a rainbow pride button on her hoodie, Katie’s “Mount Rushmore of directors” includes lesbian filmmaker Céline Sciamma, and at one point Katie advises Aaron to never be ashamed of who or what he loves. It’s very similar to Mitch from Paranorman, whose gayness was only explicitly mentioned in the film’s epilogue. Here, however, we have an openly queer protagonist whose sexuality is never made a focal point. It’s just one part of who she is, it causes no tension between her family, and it doesn’t define her character. Sony Animation didn’t even make an announcement about it in its publicity of the film (Disney, take notes). In a way, it’s kind of revolutionary about just how unremarkable Katie’s queerness is to the film’s story. No trumpets, no self-congratulatory press statements, just a dynamic, well-written main character (and I can’t stress “main” enough) who also happens to be totally queer.
There’s so much to recommend about The Mitchells Vs. The Machines that it’s hard to spell it all out, honestly. It’s hilarious, it’s beautifully-rendered, it’s genuinely emotional, and it’s just a blast from start to finish. It finds its heart in celebrating the self-proclaimed weirdness of its characters, and as a self-proclaimed weirdo myself, let me just say: I feel you. No need to be sorry, Katie. You’re doing a fantastic job.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / A-
The Mitchells Vs. The Machines can be streamed exclusively through Netflix.