Sony Pictures Animation is quickly becoming a dark horse favorite in the typically risk-averse realm of mainstream American animation. Lacking the pedigree of Disney/Pixar and overwhelming magnitude of Katzenbergian stunt casting at DreamWorks Animation, Sony has nonetheless housed talented weirdos like comedy duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), formalist Genndy Tartakovsky (Hotel Transylvania), and now Gravity Falls alumnus Mike Rianda. Rianda’s debut feature, The Mitchells vs. the Machines (hereafter Mitchells), contains much of the inventive exuberance previously showcased in Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Mitchells and Spider-Verse share Lord and Miller as producers).
Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) makes movies. Weird movies, the kind of absurdist, non sequitur juxtapositions of text and image aesthetic you’d find on TikTok or whatever platform’s already replaced TikTok in the time it took to write this sentence. Her supportive yet technophobic father Rick (Daniel McBride) doesn’t understand her mad, gibbon-infused vision, but the Internet does, earning Katie an enthusiastic YouTube viewership and spot at a generic-sounding film school in California (the movie doesn’t name-check animator incubation hub CalArts but might as well). And so the Mitchell clan embarks on a family road trip, FOMA afflicted mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) and dinosaur obsessed younger brother Aaron (Rianda) in tow, all the better to bridge the widening technological and emotional gap between daughter and father.
This generational tension plays out on a larger scale by way of robot apocalypse brought about by hoodie-clad tech nerd Mark Bowman (Eric André). Like Don’t Look Up, Mitchells takes a jaundiced view of the Facebook “move fast and break things” ethos as dangerously irresponsible. Unlike Don’t Look Up, Mitchells finds our Silicon Valley overlords merely misguided and redeemable. McKay’s satire is an instructive point of comparison for Mitchells. Both movies are about the foibles of the social media age, but Don’t Look Up takes a superior, Sorkinian approach, whereas Mitchells’ creators evidently grew up with the Internet (Rianda was born in 1984), its humor rapid-fire and nurtured on anime.
Consider a set piece in which the Mitchells are besieged by a flock (gaggle? Murder?) of Furbies in an abandoned mall, revealing the Mogwai-like critters for the eldritch horrors they are. Given the film’s Internet savvy, it’s both a relief and disappointment that we’re spared any mention of the “Long Furby” customization scene. Don’t Google it.
Furby was a late 1990s/early 2000s electronic toy craze, heir to Tickle Me Elmo. It’s an anachronism, much like Don’t Look Up’s morning show sendup (The Onion has been spoofing the vapidity of morning shows for years). McKay’s film is mortified by the sheer artifice of hosts Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry’s plastered grins in the same way that Furby’s bulging, vacant eyes are inhuman and unknowable. The difference is that Mitchells takes the extra step by subtitling their infantile gibberish into Lovecraftian nightmare (sample: “THE PAIN ONLY MAKES ME STRONGER”).
Furby’s not legitimate nightmare fuel (for one thing it didn’t emerge from the 1980s, the one true birthplace of misbegotten children’s entertainment), but the idea of imbuing it with demonic menace is the kind of “lolcats” meme fodder once relegated to the depths of Something Awful. That it’s found purchase in a relatively big-budget animated feature speaks to the cultural shifts also allowing dopey 4chan memes to fester and metastasize into national right-wing conspiracy theories.
While The Mitchells vs. the Machines takes a vaguely Libertarian stance on technology, suggesting it’s only as good or bad as the people wielding it, it’s telling that a self-aware smartphone’s (Oliva Coleman) repeated challenge to name one redeeming feature of humanity is met with only flummoxed platitudes.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021)
Runtime: 114 minutes
MPA Rating: PG