Streaming Review

The Mitchells vs. the Machines review – a charming and frenetic delight

The latest from Lord and Miller is a hilarious and hyperactive modern adventure that really will win over the entire family

Here is a relentlessly funny and hyperactive family adventure that seems to explode off the screen with the force of a digital tornado. It's the latest animated feature from producing team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who spun similar magic ensuring The LEGO Movie was less obvious capitalist product and more work of inspired genius, and recently gave Spider-Man a new lease of life with the head-spinning Into the Spider-Verse.

The Mitchells vs. the Machines, helmed by directing duo Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe, finds a similarly frantic tone to those works, though leans even more heavily into the internet's all-consuming impact on basically everything, spinning a yarn whose very contemporary, meme-heavy vibe is guaranteed to please both kids and adults alike, though for very different reasons. Blending 2D and 3D animation with some live-action thrown in for good measure, it offers a likeable surface level story about the power of family alongside a meta-narrative that asks insightful questions about big tech's place in our future.

Plot-wise, think The Incredibles, if the Incredibles didn't possess superpowers and the baby was a dog. The Mitchells are yet another family thrown into a highly explosive situation (a robot apocalypse) that's utilised as a platform for them to work through their inner conflicts – most of which stems from the tug of war between teen daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson) and her dad, Rick (Danny McBride), a blend of Mr. Incredible and Parks and Rec's Ron Swanson. Katie can't wait to escape her “weird” family, while Rick frets that her plans for the future – namely to go off to film school in L.A. to become a director – will fall through just like his own, leaving her jaded and disappointed.

Desperate to rekindle their bond before she moves away, Rick decides to take Katie and the rest of the family, including super positive mom Linda (Maya Rudolph), dinosaur-obsessed brother Aaron (Rianda), and Monchi, their loveable pug, on the great American road trip. Unfortunately, it's at this point that a sentient AI, wronged by its techbro creator (Eric Andre) and memorably voiced by Olivia Colman, decides to imprison the world's population using an army of super robots. It's left to the haphazard and ill-prepared Mitchells to invert the android armageddon.

In what could have proven Emoji Movie-level disastrous, The Mitchells vs. the Machines swallows the breadth of modern internet culture and spits it back out with a frenetic mix of unapologetic silliness and surprising intelligence. The movie doesn't preach that “screens are bad,” but lightly hints that time spent away from them now and again might be good for our human relationships (there's a certain irony to the fact that this is a Netflix film, of course, whose entire model depends on their keeping us glued to our screens).

Through a combination of fast-pacing and use of scribble-like graphics that appear on screen, there's a real push to create a movie that taps directly into the hyperactive feel of today's very online world. Instead of talking around platforms like Instagram and YouTube (or setting up obvious, cringeworthy stand-ins), the film makes explicit reference to them. It should all be very annoying and jarring, but instead it feels refreshing for an animated film to address these well-known entities by name. And while many of the best gags revolve around the growing technological divide between kids and their parents, it's never patronising; most of the parents here are addicted to their phones, too.

None of the endless riffing on pop culture would work if the movie didn't find funny and inventive ways to actually ponder on big tech and artificial intelligence – fortunately, the hit factor among the jokes is remarkably high, especially for a movie outside of the Disney/Pixar canon. Best of all, things you thought could no longer be funny find a new lease of life within the film's anarchic framework. That goes especially for what is arguably the film's best scene, which reunites us with one of the '90s most iconic toys in a truly hilarious and demented fashion. For the dads, there's also a very good joke about a Journey album cover.

While the assault of offbeat and self-referential Lord/Miller-esque gags does come to define the picture, the movie is also heartfelt and charming, never losing sight of its well-rounded characters – the voice cast is universally top-notch – amongst the beautifully choreographed action, inventive visual flourishes, and clever callbacks. If it's slightly too long (a minor complaint), The Mitchells vs. the Machines never quite outstays its welcome because the company it keeps is so great. It's the best and, given a last minute mention of its lead protagonist's queerness as a statement of fact, arguably most progressive animated film in ages.

The Mitchells vs. the Machines is now streaming on Netflix.

Where to watch

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