Welcome to the highly specific golden age of animated movies about complicated father-daughter relationships. In the Oscar-nominated (and unjustly Oscar-losing) Wolfwalkers, a fearful English soldier counsels his wild-hearted daughter to collaborate in the occupation of Ireland, lest her disobedience draw the vengeful eye of Oliver Cromwell. And in The Mitchells vs. the Machines, which arrives on Netflix on Friday, a technophobic dad frets about his daughter’s decision to major in filmmaking instead of choosing a more practical career path. In other ways, the two movies are diametrically opposed. Wolfwalkers is hand-drawn, while the digitally animated Mitchells takes its cues from the frenetic style of online memes and frequently annotates its action with bursting hearts and crude squiggles. Wolfwalkers also counsels humanity about keeping in balance with nature, while The Mitchells vs. The Machines, despite its adversarial title and a plot that centers on humanity nearly being extinguished by a rogue cellphone, is surprisingly tech-positive—only fair for a movie that was created on computers and is debuting via a streaming service.
Katie Mitchell (voiced by Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson) is a classic art-school outcast, just itching to leave home to meet the college classmates she’s already befriended over the internet. Her dad, Rick (Danny McBride), is a hulking mountain man with a stiff brush of a moustache, one who loves his daughter but finds her and her world increasingly difficult to understand. At the last family dinner before her flight, she proudly unveils a new video she’s made, depicting herself as the family pug boarding a many-legged school bus as rainbows explode all around, but all Rick can see, or at least all he’s able to express, is that there’s a laptop on the table, where he’s forbidden them to be, and his daughter is preparing to devote her life to a dream he can only see ending in failure.
Thank God for the robot apocalypse. Desperate for a chance to mend fences, if still not especially sensitive to his daughter’s desires, Rick cancels Katie’s plane ticket and arranges an impromptu family road trip—one that’s interrupted by an army of humanoid automatons. Eric André’s tech mogul has built them to replace the obedient personal assistants people already carry in their pockets, but they’ve been commandeered by his jilted former cellphone. PAL, voiced with delightful dudgeon by Olivia Colman, has some of the baffled outrage of a discarded parent, and André’s tech bro is barely more than a child himself—he clarifies one “when I was a young man” anecdote by adding “ … three years ago.” The tasks that he brags that his new fleet of robo-helpers can accomplish are all domestic chores: cook me breakfast, unpack these boxes, sweep up that mess. For him, a bleeding-edge gadget that can do almost anything finds its highest function as a mom you don’t have to thank.
The Mitchells don’t escape the fate of being rounded up and prepped for shipping into deep space because they’re extraordinary, or even because their dysfunction somehow makes them special: It’s just dumb luck that they escape while the perfect-seeming family nextdoor gets captured. (In a particularly immaculate bit of casting, the Instagram-famous clan is voiced by Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, and Charlyne Yi.) The mom, Linda (Maya Rudolph), is a first-grade teacher. Little brother Aaron (director and co-writer Michael Rianda) loves dinosaurs. They’re not even extreme in their addiction to devices, even if their eyes do water when Rick forces them to lay down their phones and tablets and talk to each other. If anything distinguishes them, it’s the solidity of the family’s foundation, which shows itself not in perfectly posed selfies but in the way even the worst argument seems to subside after a while—the way Katie is furious at her father for turning her quick flight into a days-long odyssey and then shrugs and opts to make the most of it. Their problems feel real—it’s subtly implied that one of the reasons Rick has trouble relating to Katie is because she’s gay—and so their reconciliations feel real, too.
The ballast of Rick and Katie’s relationship allows the The Mitchells vs. the Machines to take some audacious swerves that might otherwise topple the whole enterprise, including a Dawn of the Dead-style mall battle in which the family is pursued by demonic smart appliances—and eventually a five-story Furby that breathes atomic fire like the rebooted Godzilla. Rianda and Jeff Rowe’s script is nimble and clever, with wry nods to sources that will delight aspiring Katies (there’s a particularly sublime reference to Kill Bill) but sail blissfully over the heads of unwitting Aarons. And after Into the Spider-Verse and a handful of Lego Movies, it’s further proof that producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are an animation brand as reliable as Disney or Pixar, and a good deal more likely to provide something that’s not only sturdy but genuinely surprising.
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