The Mitchells vs. the Machines wins big in every category: it’s visually interesting, includes full and abundant characters, spirited commentary, but mostly it is laugh-out-loud funny. Writers/Director Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe created a true ‘film for all ages’ that has been running circles through my mind since its Netflix release in April of this year. After listening to these two writers chat about their inclusion of a gay character on the podcast Script Apart, my interest was peaked once again and I gave this film a much-deserved re-watch with a new appreciation for the harmonies at play in this feature.
A family-centric coming-of-age story, The Mitchells vs. the Machines follows a charismatically dysfunctional family in the midst of some growing pains. Teenage Katie is gearing up to fly the nest and move across the country to attend film school and find the people she feels will truly understand her. While it’s obvious there’s a lot of love in the Mitchell family, there is also a lot of discourse that makes Katie feel as though she’ll never be understood by them. Her father especially, who shows little interest in the short films she uses to express herself or the youthful, unconventional way she likes to communicate. Just like many parents, he falls into the trap of not being able to see past everyone’s fixation with technology. When tensions boil over and Rick Mitchell fears he may lose his daughter forever over this rift, he plans a cross-country road trip to drop her off at college and mend their broken relationship. The odds are definitely not in his favour to begin with, but when the robot apocalypse strikes and it’s up to this barely-functioning band to save the whole human race, well, that’s when their bonds are tested and they must work together- playing into all of their strengths and overcoming their weaknesses.
This film manages to be simultaneously topical and timeless. Without being preachy, it highlights society’s flawed relationship with tech. These days, the parent and child dynamic will often be affected by their understanding of how a phone or laptop fits into thier life. However, the core of this story never settles for simply battling over the blanket-statement argument: ‘is technology good or bad?’ This is accomplished by way of favouring character growth over tired tropes of a smartphone-fearing, stubborn Boomer figure. Instead, the timeless aspect of the story is that a family unit isn’t always the easiest team to be on, but when the love is there and active steps are taken to value your loved ones for who they are- that is when you can be at your strongest. Together or apart.
Visually, this film is unique and connected deeply to its characters. The mix of mediums brings a lot of elevation to Katie’s story as she experiences and retells it. Because she is a filmmaker and visual thinker, the exploration of the stylistic limits is playful and still cohesive. Humour is another element of this film that is hard to come by in family-friendly films of the like. It is wonderfully dark and littered with ultrarealism – obviously intending to fly far over the heads of younger audiences, but had me in stitches. The comedic interludes break up moments of tension while never failing to add heart, and always moving the story forward.
The insights into the complex ideas of family struggle are expertly dispersed among a perfectly paced and balanced story. This flawless intersection of sentimentality and comedy keeps the watching experience fresh and energetic. Farce and thoughtfulness are perfectly balanced within the natural flow of the story; it’s as equally fun as it is heartfelt, quirky as it is twisted, grand-adventurous as it is unequivocally universal.
In the closing scene of the film, after humanity has won the robo-war and Katie is settled into her new college life, her mother asks if she and a female friend have ‘made it official’ and if she’ll be bringing her home for the holidays during a video call. While Katie is quick to reel in her mother’s excitement, it is so refreshing to see that Katie’s same-sex relationship is so naturally brought up in this conversation and is met with such a positive response from her family. Initially, writers Rowe and Rianda troubleshot a few different avenues as to how to bring Katie’s sexuality into the story in an effortless way, while still diversifying the type of family the audience sees on-screen. After toying with some over-the-top expositional lines, actress Abbi Jacobsen (who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community herself) advised them that the more nonchalantly this information is woven into the story, the more impactful it will be. Additionally, once it began to circulate amongst the crew that the writers were including a homosexual female main character, they received letters of encouragement from their team expressing how much it would mean to them to work on a film with such a well-executed LGBTQ+ lead. I think the writers did an excellent job of using their resources to fill the gaps of inclusion and diversity where their lived experiences fell short.
It can be tricky to compose a well-rounded story about a family’s evolution without sounding old-fashioned or moralizing. The ultimate message of this film rings so clearly, but the threat of an overly-mushy narrative is neutralized by such a unique quality of humour. Families can be a lot of hard work, and maintaining peace and appreciation is a journey with hills and valleys. But sometimes, the sacrifices you make for the people you love can be worth it. The Mitchell’s experiences with the Robots help them find their path as a family, and some of the best sidekicks in animated-film history.