The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a collage of influences, bearing vintage hallmarks ranging from National Lampoon’s Vacation to Terminator and War Games. Its most important influence, however, may be the early days of YouTube. In its aesthetics, plot, and pacing, The Mitchells reflects the content and ethos of the mid-2000s, when anyone with a laptop and a dream thought they could ascend to stardom. Jeff Rowe and Michael Rianda’s animated movie exudes that same youthful excitement and optimism, even as it comments on how technology has damaged our personal connections.
Aspiring teen filmmaker Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is counting down the days until she can ditch her family for film school in L.A. Her over-the-top mom Linda (Maya Rudolph) and outdoor enthusiast dad Rick (Danny McBride) mean well, but don’t really get her. Katie does bond with her dinosaur-obsessed little brother Aaron (Rianda), who helps her make goofy YouTube videos starring the family’s pug.
In an effort to bond after a rough argument, Rick mounts a family road trip to drive Katie to college. While Katie tries to turn the whole thing into a series of viral videos, and Linda enviously scrolls through their neighbors’ family photos on instagram, the robot apocalypse occurs. As the rest of humanity is enslaved by a rogue AI called Pal (Olivia Colman), the bickering Mitchells have to put aside their differences–and their technology–to save the world.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines is told through Katie’s perspective, and the animation feels in tune with her fast-paced style, characterized by the kind of quick-hit visuals and humor that dominated the internet in the 2000s (a choice also attributable to Rowe and Rianda’s experience on the cult-hit animated series Gravity Falls), with cuts to inserts of kitten filters or animal videos to describe how Katie feels about her family. At one point, she stumbles across a home video of her toddler self dancing with Rick to T.I. and Rihanna’s “Live Your Life,” complete with its “Numa Numa”-sampled intro.
That approach could seem annoying (and honestly, for those who came of age before 2005, it probably will) were it not for Rianda and Rowe’s deft use of those aesthetics to communicate the ways our relationship with technology keeps us from genuine engagement. Katie’s family doesn’t understand her because so much of her personality is filtered through pop culture artifice. Linda feels inadequate because her understanding of family is influenced by posed social media pictures. Rick, a techno-phobe, doesn’t know how to engage with Katie because her interests are foreign to him, so he doesn’t consider her dreams legitimate.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines carries its considerable energy through a surprisingly long runtime. The breakneck pace might be too much for some viewers, but the reasoning behind it is sound. Its wild attitude accompanies heartwarming themes about family, parenthood, and growing up that never get overshadowed for the sake of gags. If nothing else, the movie understands the generational divide between kids who live their lives extremely online, and parents who do not. Rianda and Rowe never judge one way or the other, but suggest there are benefits both in creatively connecting with others from a distance, and staying present with the people who are right in front of us.
“The Mitchells vs. The Machines” is now playing in select theaters. It debuts on Netflix Friday.