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“The Mitchells Vs. The Machines” is breaking boundaries and expectations

I have been waiting ages for The Mitchells vs. The Machines to come out, so when I saw Netflix was doing a preview screening, I was all in. 

And boy, was it worth it. This movie is definitely one of the best of the year. If it doesn’t win an Oscar, I’ll be severely disappointed. This film pushes the boundaries more than SpiderVerse when it comes to the rules of animation and it has a great plot to boot.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines, which reverted back to its original title after being called Connected, was originally supposed to air in theaters. Then…the pandemic hit and it was decided that it would premiere on Netflix instead. Which I think was mostly for the best.

Obviously, the original title works much better for the film that follows the Mitchell family on a road trip to drop their oldest daughter, Katie, off at film school. Katie has always felt different from others and is excited to finally meet her people. She’s already had a fairly successful YouTube following. But her dad, Rick, doesn’t really get it.

He’s not fond of technology. He arranges the road trip after accidentally breaking her laptop. And Katie is not thrilled about being missing orientation or being stuck in a car with her father, elementary school teacher mother, and dinosaur obsessed little brother, Aaron.

As they’re traveling the country, a virtual assistant named PAL, decides to take over the world. Every other human on Earth is kidnapped and will be shot into space — so it’s up to the dysfunctional Mitchell family to save the day.

Adventure, shenanigans, and family bonding ensue – as one expects.

Pushing Animated Boundaries

I had high expectations for this movie but I had no idea how they were going to beat SpiderVerse in the visuals department. I had no idea what to expect. Whereas as that was an ode to comic books, The Mitchells vs. the Machines ending up being a visual ode to student film. 

That’s the best way to describe.

The whole film is presented as though it’s some visual essay by Katie herself ( though the film is obviously in the third person, she narrates.) Throughout the film, memes, real-life photos, GIFs, and stickers get overlaid on top of the animation,

It’s a really unique idea that I haven’t seen done before. It’s not exactly fourth-wall-breaking; it’s just part of the visual style and tone of the film. I would normally expect to find that kind of style exhausting, hyper, and overly reliant on current memes. But, they don’t really use current memes – unlike Ralph Breaks the Internet and The Emoji Movie which is a relief.

And there’s a lot of visual references to other movies; which is something many films do – but here it wasn’t just a cheap gag or reference. It’s done very purposefully, tying in with Katie’s love for the art form. 

The people are stylized and cartoony and expressive. I love all the little details they put into the designs, especially Katie. The doodles on her hand and sneakers. The chipped nail polish. The worn-out sweater. The pride pin. That just made her feel more real. I know people with that exact same style. And that isn’t even going into her personality.

But visually she is an excellent representation of that artsy kid, without exaggerated features. It’s not pushing visuals in the same way the effects are, but it shows that the amount of care and passion that went into the goofier, more stand-out parts of the film went into the characters as well.

The humans at least.

The robots and PAL have pretty generic designs – I wish there had been a little more push in making them stand out from your typical Apple rip-off. But that’s honestly a really minor criticism. I don’t hate it, just wasn’t impressed.

These stylistic choices are really cool, and it’s clear that they had some very creative minds at work on the film aside from writer/director Mike Rianda. I looked it up and found out Matt Braly (creator of Amphibia), Dana Terrace (creator of The Owl House) were both storyboard artists on the film. So the whole film crew is just talented and working in shows that have been pushing boundaries.

But that’s not the only way the movie was pushing boundaries.

Representation and Coding

The Mitchells vs. the Machines is the first family-feature movie to have an openly queer central character. It isn’t a huge part of the movie, and can honestly be easily missed by many but it’s still important.

Katie Mitchell is a lesbian, aside from her gay pride pin, she is also coded as gay. At the beginning of the film, she talks about how she never fit in for “more reasons than one,” and we never really see her dress femininely. It’s clear that she knew she had a different sexuality early on and her tomboy looks are pretty common for WLW.

When she talks about her future roommate Jade, she twirls her hair and talks about how “she’s really cool,” in the same way she would about a boy if she were straight. All these little hints are great and make it fairly obvious early on.

And she talks about finding “Her People” ™ in college and I don’t know how much more obvious you can get about her being queer other than outright saying “LESBIAN” but I don’t think that’s going to happen for a while.

Her whole story about wanting to fit in and be accepted doesn’t only mean finding people as passionate about film as she is but finding an LGBT-friendly community. The whole liking movies part could kind of be seen as a metaphor.

But she’s not just different because she has a niche hobby. She is different in other ways that matter. 

Strangely enough, even though the review embargo has been lifted as of the time of writing, I haven’t seen a lot of news outlets talking about how important Katie’s representation is. Maybe it’ll pick up more when the film is officially released…but this is a historic moment in family film.

It’s not until the end of the movie, right before the credits, that Katie’s sexuality is confirmed. Her mom asks if Jade is going to be coming over for Thanksgiving Break and Katie acts embarrassed,

It’s a small moment. Could be easily missed, and somebody unfamiliar with how coding works could interpret Katie inviting Jade over as more platonic. And that kind of sucks. But I’m also happy that they didn’t make a huge deal over it.

It’s nice to have a film with a gay character whose issues don’t center around their sexuality. But I’m worried this won’t be seen as the win it’s supposed to be because Katie isn’t shouting her sexuality from the rooftops.

It’s very much a mixed bag.

But at the end of the day, the film isn’t about LGBT issues or representation. It’s trying to normalize it, yes but it also shows LGBT people can be heroes in a more discrete way. And I have no doubt that some little girl out there will see this movie and see herself, see that Katie has no male love interest, pick up on her attraction to Jade and realize that she isn’t alone.

Coding helps define Katie Mitchell without outright saying it – and here it’s done well because it’s not using stereotypes. It’s using common experiences of that group and using them to establish a character in a way people will recognize them for what they’re supposed to be.

It’s the same way Infinity Train presents Lake as a non-binary trans person or Ryan and Min-Gi as being in love – except you know…in this case, they’re actually allowed to be somewhat explicit.

Just enough so that conservative families might not notice and China can cut the lines out…We still have a long way to go. But we’re getting there.

Family Bonding

Family bonding road trip movies are great; I think that’s because there’s truth to it. Road trips are just a great way of bringing people together. And in this movie, pretty much everyone gains a new perspective of the other members of their family.

While I do find the overprotective dad who is also bad at technology trope, kind of outdated – especially since Rick, at his age (late ’40s – early ’50s, I assume) should have an idea of how to use some of this technology better than he does.

Hasn’t he ever needed to use a computer for his work? Like at all? I get he’s an outdoorsy, handyman type of guy but I can’t imagine somebody that age not knowing how to use YouTube at all.

But he’s well-meaning: I was really getting ready to hate him, especially since in the previews he seemed fully responsible for breaking Katie’s laptop.

The incident was the catalyst for the road trip. In the end, it sets up a “parents as people” moment for Katie, who never thought about her dad’s past or why he may act the way he does. I think that’s common for a lot of young people, myself included.

And Mom, Linda, gets to become a Momma Bear of epic proportions. Katie’s relationship with her mom already was pretty fine, and Mom was always trying to play mediator between Katie and her husband. 

It’s through Dad’s ways of bringing the family together (without technology) along with his desire to fix all their problems, and Katie’s love of movies that end up being key to bringing down the evil robots. Their bond is what helps save the world. And they do it while singing their song. And I think that is pretty neat.

They have a pretty realistic family dynamic and I appreciate that. Sure, they’re quirky but they’re all quirky in a real and believable way. And they don’t hate each other or resent each other in the end; they love each other and are willing to stick by in thick or thin.

And when interpersonal issues do arise, there’s no both sides of this are valid bullshit. Both have issues: Katie’s wrong for wanting to leave her family totally behind after film school, because aside from her dad dismissing her passion (which is wrong), they love her and want her to succeed.

Dad though misses his little girl. And while those feelings are valid, it’s shown he can’t let that get in the way of letting her try and succeed on her own.

 I’m so grateful Katie doesn’t really have a love interest in this film. The last thing we needed was gender essentialism and having Dad say, “No dating till you’re 30.” I’m so over that crap. That would have been so annoying.

Maybe technophobia will be the next thing to go in film.

Technophobia No More

I was scared that this movie was going to have an anti-technology bent to it. Y’know that social media is evil…and things were better back in the days of yore. Thankfully, it’s more “big tech companies are bad and should not be trusted,” which I think is something we can all agree on.

This movie doesn’t even have the message that if you’re on your phone all the time, you’ll miss out. Nope. Cellphones and survival skills are both necessary, neither is inherently evil or inherently good.

It’s the big tech company that hacks into people’s emails, that doesn’t have people’s best interests at heart, and didn’t think twice about the dangers of making a hyper-intelligent A.I. obsolete. Apparently, they can get jealous.

And the movie shows the good about technology. Katie has her own valid way of experiencing the world and expressing herself. She used it to find her people and a place she felt comfortable in. That’s perfectly fine. And it’s also perfectly fine NOT to need technology to experience the world. But if you have a family member on the opposite side of the spectrum you need to learn to find a way to bond and accept each other.

It was wrong of Rick to take away her devices from her (except during the robot apocalypse) or say she was experiencing the world incorrectly.

And since Katie’s love of movies and their tropes is what ends up helping to save the world, technology can’t be all that bad, right?

Overall…I fucking loved this movie. It’s easily one of, if not the best movies of the year. Watch it now. On the biggest screen, you can. You won’t regret it.

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Grade: A –

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Year of release: 2021

Length: 109 minutes

Director: Mike Rianda

ProducersPhil Lord, Christopher Miller, Kurt Albrecht

Writers: Mike Rianda Jeff Rowe

Voice ActorsDanny McBrideAbbi JacobsonMaya RudolphEric AndreOlivia ColmanFred ArmisenBeck BennettJohn LegendChrissy TeigenBlake GriffinConan O’Brien

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