Meet the Mitchell family! Teenage daughter Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is the aspiring filmmaker behind a string of surreal viral videos dad Rick (Danny McBride) just doesn't get. He worries the once-close-knit family are drifting apart, distracted by their digital devices. To that end outdoorsman Rick, social media-addicted mom Linda (Maya Rudolph) and dinosaur-obsessed son Aaron (Michael Rianda), together with their weird-looking dog Monchi, to whisk a highly reluctant Katie on a would-be fun-filled family road trip along her way to start college. Unfortunately not only does the journey prove incredibly awkward but the Mitchells run right into Rick's worst nightmare... a robot apocalypse orchestrated by a rogue A.I. out to enslave humanity.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines fashions a surprisingly ambitious narrative with dual subtexts: serving up both a smart satire of conflicting generational attitudes about techno-dependence and a heart-warming affirmation of family togetherness. Produced by those masters of meta-humour Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, it has thematic and stylistic elements in common with past masterworks The Lego Movie (2014) and Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse (2018). However, here the primary creative forces driving the production are writer-directors Michael Rianda (also the voice of Aaron) and Jeff Rowe with script input from Alex Hirsch: creator of the peerless Gravity Falls. Indeed while the animation frequently dazzles with ingenious use of mixed formats (digital and cel animation, puppets, even live-action viral videos) the film’s real strength stems from a script that crafts some very moving, deeply human relationships.
The central relationship hinges on the gulf of misunderstanding that threatens to split father and daughter apart. Katie is an artist with a vivid imagination that sadly serves only to alienate her from other people including her dad. Meanwhile Rick is something of a Luddite, a would-be rugged survivalist-type who loathes modern tech but nobly gave up his own dreams to raise a family. Now he can't help but wonder whether it was all worth it. The core conflicts in the story are much more evocative of a quirky indie drama than your typical animated family fare. However the creators cleverly parallel this theme with the sci-fi plot that stems from billionaire tech genius Mark (Eric André) who callously discards his creation PAL (voiced to perfection by Olivia Coleman) regardless of their lifelong bond, thus crafting humanity's nemesis. Much as Katie unintentionally mistreats Rick and vice-versa. As PAL points out humans have an unnerving habit of treating other humans as disposable objects just like their technology.
What follows occasionally evokes the sweet and sour family-road-trip-gone-awry dynamics of the original National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) melded to a sci-fi plot that throws in a pair of amiably inept robots, a picture-perfect Instagram family voiced in a clever in-joke by social media-darlings Chrissie Teigen and John Legend, and the Mitchells battling an army of malevolent Furbies. While less focused than Lego Movie or Spider-Verse and sluggish in parts, The Mitchells vs. the Machines consistently pulls off a succession of really smart, insightful moments. As with other Lord and Miller productions its hyper-ebullient wackiness can grow wearying to viewers not on its wavelength. Yet it is offset by a nuanced, sensitive approach to storytelling laced with genuine depth and pathos. Its message that cross-generational digital and analogue values are equally worthy and that we should tolerate the bad aspects of family life in order to cherish the positives are ideals worth celebrating.