I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first saw the trailers for The LEGO Movie. Up until Phil Lord and Christopher Miller crafted a beautifully referential work where everything was awesome, the LEGO movie franchise had been relegated to straight-to-video and cable movies and shows that were good-natured fun for the kids but didn’t have much pop behind them. Lord and Miller followed this up as producers of several films, including the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, in which Lord was also a writer. With these, and many other films in the duo’s prolific list of film and television credits, they have mostly been in control of the narrative. With Netflix’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines, producers Lord and Miller take a bit of a back seat, providing the film with a good bit of clout, but ultimately handing over the majority of creative control to relative newcomers Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe.
This is the story of Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), a young teenager who spends her days making movies with her dinosaur-obsessed brother, Aaron Mitchell (Michael Rianda) and their oddball of a pug. Katie is super excited when she’s accepted into film school, where she can finally be around people who understand her, unlike her parents, Rick and Linda (Danny McBride and Maya Rudolph, respectively). In a final, last-ditch effort to bond with his somewhat estranged daughter, Rick cancels her flight and takes the family on a college-bound road trip.
Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, a Steve Jobs-type tech guru (Eric André) has announced that his Siri-type mobile assistant, PAL (Olivia Colman), is being replaced with the upgraded physical robot version. PAL isn’t keen on losing her place as the ultimate human assistant, so she turns the army of robots against the people, rounding them all up in small pods. Except, of course, for the Mitchells, who, despite having no skills whatsoever, inadvertently evade capture and come up with a plan to stop PAL from taking over the world.
The film starts out a bit jilted, with a cacophony of different animation and film making styles all competing for your attention. The dominant style is computer animation, which itself feels as if it’s competing on two different levels that don’t ever seem to pair up in the most efficient way (mostly in the hair design, which makes it feel out of place among the rest of the animation). We’re then given sparks of 2-D animation to highlight things like exasperated emojis, noises or emotions. On top of it all is the occasional insertion of real footage pulled from YouTube and real still shots. It all feels very jumbled – up until the point you begin to understand how the chaos of the animation connects with the social commentaries that invade the main plot of the story.
On one level, Rianda and Rowe (who both directed and wrote the film) take plenty of hits out on Silicon Valley, big tech and the overall obsession with the human fascination with the Internet and our addiction to screens. By focusing on how we spend more time on our devices than we do with one another, the idea becomes infused with the character of the animation itself, making it a natural extension of our sub-conscious. Essentially, there are a million ways to distract us, and Rianda and Rowe utilize their brand of satire to share their thoughts on how social media companies and big tech have taken over our lives to the point that we could all one day be rounded up simply because someone is giving away free WiFi.
Making Katie a budding filmmaker also embodies the heavy mix of animation and special effects — a distraction of unnecessary apps that hide us behind a mask of cute, silly diversions, keeping us from truly seeing the world around us and turning us into nothing more than complacent mammals ready to laugh at the next clip of a screaming monkey.
Under all of the chaos and social commentary lies the heart of the film, a personalized message of love and family. There’s a small amount of inspiration that comes through in the bond between Aaron and Linda, as well as Katie and Aaron, but these relationships tend to take a back seat to the fractured bond between Katie and Rick, the father-daughter connection that drives the core of the narrative.
Throughout the film, Katie is trying to get away from her family, but only because she doesn’t understand her father. The thing is, the only reason she doesn’t understand him is because he is fighting her evolution from daddy’s little girl to independent, creative film geek. They are two different people that do what they can to get along, but are only doing so to get by.
What this trip, and ultimately this adventure, does is show them both that fighting change (or attempting to change the other to a perception of what they want or need) is going to keep them from fighting for what truly matters. Once they decide to simply give in to who the other is, and has become, they can finally let go and enjoy the ride. Rianda and Rowe also throw in a fun hint at the concept of adoption, or the acceptance of something new into your family, by adding in two malfunctioning robots that eventually help the Mitchell’s get what they need. It was a nice touch that leads to some terrific moments of inspiration, action and comedy.
In the end, though Lord and Miller didn’t write or direct The Mitchells vs. the Machines, I do feel they gave the reigns of the film to a terrific duo who controlled the narrative by utilizing every aspect of film making at their disposal to create a movie that starts out a bit bumpy, but ends up delivering a biting commentary on life, family, and the big tech oligarchy that is trying to control, and possibly even destroy, us all.
My Grade: A
The action sequences, or at least what you can see of the action sequences, help save Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, as the rest of the film falls a bit short in compelling characters and a compelling plot that are necessary to drive a typical, run-of-the-mill political conspiracy thriller (especially one that wants to try and jump start a Marvel-style universe in the world of Tom Clancy). Listen to my (Spoiler) review of Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse on Ramblin’ Reviews. B
Next week, new movies include Wrath of Man, Here Today, The Human Factor and Monster (Netflix). If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.