Sony Pictures Animation was once a minnow of the medium, its prosaic releases barely a threat to the dominance of the industry’s heavyweights. That order is looking shakier nowadays, with the company doing everything and anything possible to distance itself from the competition, much to its benefit, with this feature being a recent example.
The Mitchell family – consisting of patriarch Rick (Danny McBride), his wife Linda (Maya Rudolph), teenage daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson), youngest son Aaron (the film’s director, Mike Rianda) and their pet dog Monchi – is driving from their home in Michigan to California, where Katie will be attending Film School. For Rick, the road trip represents one last chance to connect with his daughter; for Katie, it’s just the latest instance of her father’s undermining ways.
As the Mitchells make their way across state lines in their weathered station wagon, an artificial intelligence system known as PAL (Olivia Colman) gains control of the world’s electronic devices to launch a machine-led, Terminator-style apocalypse, enslaving humanity in the process. The only people to escape PAL’s tyranny, funnily enough, are the Mitchells, who take full advantage of their freedom by tasking themselves with saving humanity through their own wacky, unconventional means.
The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021) was due for a cinematic release in 2020 under the moniker of Connected, delayed several times in the wake of the pandemic before its financier, Sony Pictures, eventually scuttled the film’s distribution plans altogether. Instead, the movie was tendered to various streaming websites and eventually purchased by Netflix, which secured global rights to the picture and a change in title – one preferred by the producers and initially rejected by Sony.
An immediately distinguishable feature of The Mitchells is the art-style, looking unique to any other Hollywood production. Although computer-generated like most animated pictures, the illustrations have been rendered and shaded in such a way that each frame better resembles an acrylic painting, lovingly hand-crafted on a patch of canvas. The character designs are equally distinctive, being adorned with flat faces, wide eyes, gangly bodies and brightly-coloured clothes to truly set the film apart from its brethren, from Sony or otherwise.
These beguiling images are energised by the exceptional animation, comparable in quality to another Sony feature, the much-loved Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). Throughout The Mitchells, people and objects are seen moving with a remarkable amount of freedom, apparently unhampered by technological limitations; in quieter, more emotional scenes, these movements are smooth and fluid, becoming quick and frenetic during scenes of action, and faster still in the comedic sequences to synchronise perfectly with the film’s zany tone.
Therein lies another forte of The Mitchells: its comic sensibilities. The movie is rife with humour, containing a plentiful number of visual gags, generous amounts of slapstick and a selection of decent one-liners – including some ironic, pointed statements about America’s technology giants that surely aren’t lost on Netflix. For cinephiles, there’s even more pleasure to be derived from the copious references to other works, including no less than two welcome homages to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003).
Disappointingly, there is an area where The Mitchells lags behind its contemporaries, and that’s in the screenplay department. The story is one that follows some very familiar beats, incorporating timeworn elements such as a young protagonist struggling to bond with their parent, and revelations of deceit that cause greater conflict between characters, neither of which are appreciated. Even so, the plot remains relatively compelling, courtesy of some clever turns thwarting the progress of the characters.
And anyhow, it’s the comedy and animation that are the picture’s greatest strengths, hallmarks shared with Into the Spider-Verse – and surely not by coincidence. With these two films, it appears that Sony is readying itself as a pioneer of the industry; a company that doesn’t compromise on the artists’ vision, encouraging innovation rather than adherence to a particular style or image. In an era where movies are increasingly subject to studio interference, it’s an approach that’s sorely needed.
Blessed with an abundance of creativity, colour and zaniness, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is the kind of picture that other studios could only dream of emulating. Its distinctive visuals, brilliant animation and hilarious antics are more than enough to overcome a cliched plot, all showing why Sony Pictures Animation has a bright future ahead.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines is currently streaming on Netflix.