Producers: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Kurt Albrecht Directors: Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe Screenplay: Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe Cast: Danny McBride, Abbi Jacobson, Maya Rudolph, Mike Rianda, Eric André, Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen, Blake Griffin, Conan O’Brien, Charlyne Yi, Sasheer Zamata, Alex Hirsch and Jay Pharoah Distributor: Netflix
Can a father and teenage daughter who have grown apart overcome the chasm that’s come between them by joining with their other family members to fight a robot apocalypse that threatens mankind? That’s the question posed by “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” and the answer is never in doubt.
In the animated movie from the Sony Animation factory (the picture was actually made for Columbia and then passed to Netflix), Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) begins by offering a sketch of her life as a misfit. She eventually found her place through her love of movies, and has won admission to a film school in California, which she considers the chance to escape not just her town but her dad Rick (Danny McBride), who’s become a bit of an embarrassment. She gets along much better with her mom Linda (Maya Rudolph) and little brother Aaron (Mike Rianda), who’s as obsessed with dinosaurs as she is with moviemaking.
The evening before Katie’s scheduled to fly to California for orientation week, she and Rick have a disagreement in which her precious laptop is wrecked. Anxious to mend things, he has the sudden inspiration that he, Linda, Aaron and the family dog Monchi should drive her to the school in a farewell family road trip. Katie’s appalled, but forced to agree. What results an animated version of the Griswolds’ first excursion, but with more frantic action.
But their expedition just happens to coincide when Mark Bowman (Eric André), the Steve Jobs-like head of a high-tech firm, is announcing the arrival of his latest fantastic product—a robotic upgrade of his popular smart phone-personal assistant combo PAL (Olivia Colman), which will remove its human owner’s need to do pretty much of anything by performing all the laborious tasks of everyday life.
When Bowman tosses PAL into the trash as now obsolete, the device rebels and takes over the robots, instructing them to imprison all humans in little personal boxes, ending humanity’s reign on earth. Only the Mitchells escape to put up a fight, and get help from two of the robots (Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett), who provide them with information that will prove decisive in shutting down PAL’s nefarious scheme.
Much of “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is like a retread of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” with robots added; it has a similar mixture of busy, raucous farce and sentiment, especially toward the close, where the family has to overcome emotional scars in order to work together and succeed. Monchi, after which Katie has modeled the “hero” in the (rather unfunny) short movies that won her a scholarship, also has a major role to play.
There are some good gags throughout the movie—one featuring an army of Furbys, that obnoxious Gremlins-like nineties automated toy, or the manner in which PAL is ultimately disposed of—and except for the moments of familial reconciliation, it moves at a frenetic pace, thanks to Greg Levitan’s editing. Lindsey Oliveres’ production and character designs are imaginative, and Mark Mothersbaugh’s score, complemented of course by some pop songs, adds to the energetic feel.
In the end, though, the picture feels like a carefully manufactured product lacking the mixture of cleverness and heart that would take it to Pixar level. And, of course, its message about the dangers of technology seems a bit hollow, coming as it does from a piece of computer animation on a streaming service many will watch on tablets and smart phones of the PAL variety.
Still, it’s more fun than most of today’s mediocre animated family fare.