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REVIEW – “The Mitchells vs the Machines”: Robot Apocalypse Makes for 2021’s First Animated Runaway Smash

It should not be all that long ago that the burgeoning brilliance of Sony Pictures Animation was shared with the world giving a superhero-in-training his chance to shine. Once the glow of the Spiderverse ebbed away, the work has been increasingly fervent. Yes, we’ve had to contend with some slightly above middling franchise entities (Angry Birds, Hotel Transylvania) in between the real gold. The pandemic-extended wait for their next grand opus was long, but ultimately worth it. Right from the offset, The Mitchells vs the Machines exudes raw creativity and ingenuity in equal doses. It’s a candy colored comic adventure rooted in Terminator-style tech ethics, varying degrees of needle drops, and a firm sense of family unity. How all of that swirls together is almost maddening, but the results just match its zippy pacing. Think an amusement ride that runs nearly two hours, and without any need for Dramamine.

The film’s core may lie best with its hero, the Mitchells’ eldest kid Katie (Abbi Jacobsen). An introverted outcast who confides most with her brother Aaron (co-writer/director Michael Rianda), and her passion for filmmaking. In having stagnated a tad at home in Michigan, with few friends to speak of, she’s made quite the niche for herself creating online short films with a high production value.

Her parents, Rick and Linda (Danny McBride and Maya Rudolph) are the utter epitome of a generational gap. She and Aaron do not bat an eye to support their talented peer on the eve of journeying to a west coast film school. Nature-bound Rick, however, still sees all forms of technology as a detriment to their connectivity, splitting their family at the seams without anyone recognizing the signs. Unwilling to let the opportunity slip aside, he exchanges Katie’s plane tickets for the backseat of their station wagon. Without another moments’ thought, and with their phones shoved away, the Mitchells look to reconnect, not so much fulfilling as say, 10 years ago, as it is finitely awkward.

It is immediately clear Katie and Rick are worlds apart from each other. Rather conveniently do they find their relationship placed under the microscope on the test as the technology brand they once trusted is taken over from the inside, through the power of AI. Inside the heart of Silicon Valley, the ever-inquisitive Pal (Olivia Colman) has discovered she’s to be replaced by an upgrade at the mercy of her Wonka-style human boss Mark (Eric Andre). Like any disillusioned individual whose work has changed the lives of many for little thanks, she turns on all of them by staging an elaborate plan to send them off the planet, luring them like figurative sheep.

Thus incites the apocalyptic tone Rianda, co-writer and director Jeff Rowe, and a brain trust comprised of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (if you see any Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs echoes, blame them), and a handful of fellow Gravity Falls collaborators (yes, even the elusive Alex Hirsch) strive to surpass. Moreover, despite a minor snag or two in the later third to slow the momentum down, they all achieve that goal. One of establishing a landscape where the only solution to fight evil tech is to be one step ahead, and work like one cohesive team. The Mitchells are that exact team, allied by a pair of defective robots (Beck Bennett and Fred Armisen) just mindless enough to show a constrained oblivion toward their former company loyalty.

Family bonding is an inevitability with this tale. Of course, that does not come without a bevy of side-splitters, the kind to leave one’s stomach feeling like pins and needles. It has been a while, so it’s easy to forget that feeling. The level of inventive gag work rivals that of what Chuck Jones could imagine in his sleep; proof Rianda has done his homework. And the design palette overseen by Lindsey Olivares (Penguins of Madagascar) may be the best visual representation of a sugar high since Wreck-it Ralph. If one is seeing 2D effects wrapped around moving objects and character expressions, that’s only an expression of Katie’s rampant imagination. Her eyes live and breathe cinematic, a perspective as fresh as Rianda’s life-inspired directorial vision. Just replace epic with weird, and you have her energetic identity, anchoring the film’s look and story points down without being asked twice.

If this adventure were a mountain, we would be fighting a little oxygen-depleted stagnation before the summit. Rocky ground Rianda looks to surpass, which thankfully he does. Where the story stumbles, the quality cast makes up the difference. Jacobsen slips into the lead role with high aplomb, never shying away to equal the on-screen freneticism. Rianda’s little brother character is all our little brothers, only even more obsessed with dinosaurs. McBride’s rugged, paranoid survivalist brings him back to a serious fray on film after a little time doing the HBO rounds. However, the surprise scene-stealer must be Miss Colman, a comedienne by heart given the room to shriek and writhe in evil, while providing a cautionary tale for AI going deranged. Albeit at the cost of Andre’s screen time lacking expanse.

Rounded out by a delightful Mark Mothersbaugh score wrapped around a mixtape level soundtrack (more overlooked Talking Heads deep cuts, please!), Rianda recognizes the common jitters of a first time director, approaching them with a tongue-blepped grin to craft another mind-bogglingly brilliant cinematic art piece. Regardless of that struggle to sustain an emotional wavelength above constant helium-elevated hijinks, the potpourri that ensues bears a most delightful flavor. The Mitchells vs the Machines works well with its strengths, shining bright with its tincture range as the (still-early) year’s best animated feature. Where the doors were already open, the pathway is widened more to bring back the animated film realm, Sony’s stake in the game, and the unconventional family road trip a little stronger than 2019. Whom else would we want or trust to settle a human-appliance conflict? The Mitchells might have to do. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)

The Mitchells vs. the Machines drops on Netflix April 30; rated PG for action and some language; 113 minutes.