I’m sitting here trying to decide which of the titular Mitchells in The Mitchells vs. the Machines, out now on Netflix, is my absolute favorite.
On the one hand, it’s hard to argue against Katie Mitchell, voiced by Abbi Jacobson. Because, see, Katie might seem like your standard wayward teen searching for where they belong as so many a Disney protagonist has sung about to their birds or whatever, but with Katie there’s a high degree of specificity that makes her truly special. A quirky, movie-obsessed young woman, Katie has never felt like she belonged in her hometown, and now she’s on the cusp of going to college and finally, finally, meeting up with peers who ‘get’ her. Jacobson, so consistently, brutally funny on Broad City, deploys that same razor-sharp comedic timing here, but she also brings palpable longing to this girl.
Much of the early goings of The Mitchells are built around bringing you into the mind of this girl, with writers/directors Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe finding beautiful small details to flesh her out. From the moment they display that Katie has drawn a face on her leg, turning the hole in her jeans’ knee into a mouth, you know this girl and you care about this girl. Katie’s love of filmmaking and animation also provides this computer animated film with an excuse to pepper in hand-drawn exclamations and enhancements that not only helps define the film’s distinct look, but add another layer of manic invention and energy to the proceedings, and grounds us even deeper into Katie’s perspective and worldview.
Yeah, yeah I think that’s right. First thought, best thought. Katie is my favorite charac-
But you know what second thoughts and second hands can be worthwhile too and God do I love Danny McBride as Rick Mitchell, Katie’s father.
A Ron Swanson-y sort, Rick’s hatred of all technology makes him the perfect narrative and comedic counterpoint to the robot apocalypse once that kicks off.
Oh yeah, forgot to mention, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is about how this family, the Mitchells, to be clear, deals with a robot uprising trying to banish the human race from the planet. The end of the world kicks off when a tech company overextends its products without thinking the consequences through and accidentally unleashes an Armageddon that a WiFi-addicted populace cannot combat. I’d love to say that this is an inaccurate prediction for how Judgement Day will arrive, but, well…
But Rick being as technophobic as he is not only serves the narrative purpose of justifying why the Mitchells are the only people in a position to combat the robopocalypse, it also provides easy shorthand for the gulf between Rick and his tech-savvy daughter. The script for The Mitchells does spectacular work etching out the details of a dynamic in which neither the parent nor the child is at ‘fault’ for why their relationship has become so brittle. As a viewer, you understand both Rick’s heartbreak when his attempts to create new moments with Katie fall flat, but you also empathize with Katie when her own attempts to reach out to her father fall on deaf ears. McBride, a poet laureate of mediocre American males for over a decade in film and television now, threads a delicate needle of being both brusque and vulnerable, pig-headed but loving, capable of being capable while also tripping over his own feet.
Yeah, between the terrific characterization, consistent hilarity, and unexpected poignancy, my favorite character has got to be-
But then again, there’s Maya Rudolph.
Maya Rudolph is Linda Mitchell, Rick’s wife and Katie’s mom, and it is clinically impossible for me not to think that Maya Rudolph is the best part of whatever she happens to be in. She’s reliably brilliant in pretty much everything and this film is no exception.
And it speaks to the depth of this film that Linda isn’t just The Mom. Even as she’s fulfilling the expected role of level-headed peacemaker, Linda has her own arc, her own insecurities to resolve, and her own steady supply of killer punchlines and running jokes that deliver laugh after laugh.
Have I mentioned how ludicrously funny this film is? You’d have to go back to…I don’t know, man, maybe Popstar? Blockers was great, maybe that one, to find an American comedy this consistently joke-for-joke hilarious. Keeping the focus on Linda, there’s an extended sequence near the film’s climax featuring her that was so funny I had to pause the movie because I was literally choking to death on the sound of my own joy.
There are huge, broad gags that slay, there are character beats that’ll leave you howling, there’s blink-and-you’ll miss it visuals that contain layers upon layers of jokes, and always the animated format is being used to enrich and enhance every other element of the film, including the humor.
That’s maybe the biggest hallmark of producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller. From their animated projects (directing Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie, producing modern American masterwork Into the Spider-Verse) to their live action work (the 21 Jump Street movies), there’s a clear methodology to put as much energy and innovation into every single element of the film. There’s not a frame that isn’t loaded with artistry, and there’s not a single scene that’s treated as throwaway or disposable. Every piece matters, so every piece should be beautiful.
And so even as the Lord/Miller projects burst at the seams with color and jokes in a seemingly random confection of incident and imagery, their films also feature tight-as-a-drum systems of set-up/payoff that put even Pixar’s clockwork precision to shame, and tell involving, intimately observed human stories.
Nowhere is that more clear than with Linda, and that is why she is my favorite charac-
OK, but see then there’s Aaron.
Aaron, Katie’s young brother, is voiced by director Rianda, and I gotta tell you, I think the kid makes the movie. He’s every bit as wonderfully odd as his sister while being mercifully free of her teenaged angst and self-awareness. But even as the character’s youth enables him to be a chaotic comedic engine, The Mitchells finds the space to flesh Aaron out beyond that. He works just fine as a walking joke-dispenser, but there are still moments when the movie punches in on moments of fear and heartbreak that make Aaron resonate as a person.
Like the rest of the family, Aaron’s characterization benefits from the animation style itself. The characters all have exaggerated cartoon proportions to their bodies, limbs, and digits, while skin has a painterly texture and features and expressions have a hand-drawn look, which blends beautifully with the doodles and flash-style animation zipping across the screen as Katie’s mood dictates. The end result is incredibly expressive animation that nonetheless has a wonderful tactile quality and that truly does not feel like anything any other American animation studio is doing (in fairness, the new Pixar, Luca, seems to be trying something not dissimilar, with the characters in that film looking like Laika dolls brought to life).
Aw hell, I can’t choose a favorite. I love all the Mitchells and trying to separate one from the rest would be, well, going against the whole dang point of the movie. And gushing about these characters for so long means I haven’t even mentioned Eric Andre as the tech CEO who accidentally brings about the end of the human race but feels awfully bad about it, or the hysterical escalation of the Furby scene, or Olivia Colman as an aggrieved iPhone, or the incredibly odd usage of Beck Bennett, Fred Armisen, and Conan O’Brien throughout the film, or the note-perfect casting of the ‘Perfect Family’ that haunts Linda’s every waking instant on Instagram.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a movie about an ordinary family trying to survive an extraordinary time. With so many of us doing our damnedest to do the same thing, this is just about the perfect film for the moment. Even if I can’t pick a favorite.
Actually, tell a lie, of course I can pick a favorite: It’s the dog. Or…wait, is that a pig? A loaf of bread? Well, whatever it is, that little guy is without a doubt my absolute favorite character in the movie.
But, then again…