What does it mean for a work of art to feel “fresh?” It’s a little tricky to define. When talking about a movie comedy, it has to do with how energetic the performers are, how up-to-date the humor is, and how many of the jokes actually land. But ultimately a quality like “freshness” isn’t something that’s quantifiable; it’s more of a feeling. You can sense when a movie has it and when it doesn’t.
The new animated comedy The Mitchells vs. The Machines from Sony Pictures Animation has it. The story centers on Katie (Abbi Jacobson), a high school graduate who is days away from starting college. Things between Katie and her father Rick (Danny McBride) have been tense for some time because he doesn’t understand her obsession with filmmaking or her tech-centered life. In a last ditch effort, Rick cancels Katie’s flight to college and decides they’ll take a family road trip to get there instead, and wouldn’t you know it, on the way there the machines rise up and all of humanity is taken captive by robots. The Mitchells are the only people who manage to avoid capture and it’s up to them to try and save the day.
“Fresh” is the perfect word to describe this movie, from the stunning animation to the joke-a-minute dialogue to the insightful yet balanced commentary on our modern, tech-filled world. It’s difficult to even compare The Mitchells vs. The Machines to anything else. The movie clearly draws lots of inspiration from other places— comic books, the internet, current events, other movies— but it creates something entirely new out of those influences, and it’s likely to appeal to almost anyone. Sure, there is a certain amount of shared DNA between this and your average animated family comedy, but The Mitchells vs The Machines feels a cut above most animated films because it’s absolutely overflowing with creativity.
With this film and the previous effort from Sony Pictures Animation, Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse, the studio has developed a unique style. The two films feel very similar, visually as well as in other elements like tone, pacing, and even sound design. I hope they continue in this vein because it’s a style that could be well-suited to lots of different stories. And the sense of humor in this film is absolutely of a piece with Spider-verse and the other big animated effort from the same producers (Phil Lord and Christoper Miller), The Lego Movie. While Pixar is still the gold standard when it comes to voice performances, the voice work here is all fairly strong as well, with the particular standout being Oscar-winner Olivia Colman as a voice assistant gone bad. Olivia Colman as evil Siri? It’s inspired casting.
Aside from the impressive craft on display, the story really works here too. The opening minutes take time to introduce us to Katie and we get a strong sense of who she is and why her relationship with her father is so challenging. As the film goes on we get more and more of her dad’s side of the story as well, and as you might expect, they both grow from the experiences they have during the film. Predictable maybe, but getting there is surprisingly poignant and a capable handling of a classic case of generational tension. The other family members, Katie’s mom Linda (Maya Rudolph) and little brother Aaron (Michael Rianda), are also well-written and get mini-arcs of their own (Linda constantly comparing herself to her obnoxiously perfect neighbors, voiced by John Legend and Chrissy Teagan, is a particularly funny subplot).
The messaging around technology in this film is another thing that sets it apart. It’s immediately clear that Katie and Aaron use their computers and cell phones all the time, which is a point of contention for their technology-averse dad. This plays into the relationship drama in a big way, but the big-picture tech stuff is also pretty unique. The aforementioned robot apocalypse is caused by a product launch gone wrong from a fictional tech company called Pal, which is clearly meant to be an amalgamation of the major tech players in the real world. The press conference and smart assistant feel very much like Apple and Siri, the logo looks like Amazon, the use of customer data seems to mirror Facebook (and the CEO is a hoodie-wearing hipster named Mark), and the way Pal is everywhere all the time feels an awful lot like Google. Through a handful of pointed lines of dialogue, the filmmakers disparage big tech, even while pointing out the ways technology can truly bring people together and enable incredible creativity.
There is not much to dislike about The Mitchells vs The Machines. Roughly 98% of the jokes are genuinely funny, which leaves room for a few flops but it’s still an impressive success rate. There’s also a monologue or two at the end that feel a bit overdone, but it’s hard to find fault after having so much fun for two hours. It’s a shame this won’t be played widely in theaters because it would be stunning on the big screen, and I hope it doesn’t get buried on Netflix because this film is really something special. So, I encourage everyone reading, sit down and give this film some time because it’s absolutely the most fun movie of 2021 so far.
The Mitchells vs The Machines is now playing in limited theaters and streaming on Netflix.