The Mitchells vs. The Machines Proves Sony Animation is Here to Stay
The logline for The Mitchells vs. the Machines, the new animated feature from Sony Pictures Animation, doesn't immediately suggest something special. A dysfunctional family of four sets out on a cross-country road trip to drop off their eldest daughter at college, interrupted by a robot apocalypse that only they can stop. It's easy to imagine the parade of clichés and worn-out story beats that could fit such a description—but fortunately, The Mitchells aren't your typical dysfunctional animated family, and this isn't an ordinary animated film. Written by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, and directed by Rianda in his feature debut, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is packed to the brim with emotional specificity, visual panache, and relentless comedic pacing, and should solidify Sony as a major player with a distinct identity in American animation.
Originally titled Connected, it was meant to be released theatrically by Sony in 2020. But like so many others, COVID-19 scrambled their release plans, and the studio sold it to Netflix, which released it in April 2021 under Rianda and Rowe's preferred title. But this is a thoroughly Sony production, sharing DNA (not to mention super-producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller) with past studio triumphs The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The same way The Lego Movie utilized stop-motion aesthetics to simulate the practical effect of playing with Lego toys and Spider-Verse used 2-D pops to evoke comic book graphics, The Mitchells blends multimedia elements with traditional computer animation to create a unique visual language that thematically complements protagonist Katie Mitchell's (Abbi Jacobson) passion as a budding filmmaker. It's a nice pattern that helps give Sony Animation a signature house style—not unlike Pixar, Laika, and other animation stalwarts—without unduly constraining its filmmakers.
As Katie travels cross-country during a robot takeover with her parents Rick and Linda (Danny McBride and Maya Rudolph), dinosaur-obsessed little brother Aaron (Rianda, again), and pug Monchi (played by, and I can't believe this is a real credit, Doug the Pug), the family dynamics feel detailed and authentic. Even as they hit well-worn character beats—the tension between technophobic, outdoorsy dad Rick and movie-obsessed Katie is the film's main thrust—everything is so specifically drawn that it feels fresh without losing its familiarity. Each character's emotional arc feels earned, every scene is overflowing with gags, and the voicework is top notch, especially from Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett as a pair of malfunctioning robots and Olivia Colman as the architect of the apocalypse.
It's also worth pointing out that Katie is the rare openly queer character in a family animated film, and kudos to the filmmakers for not feeling like they needed to make that a sticking point in the tense father-daughter relationship. It neither drives the plot nor defines her character—it's just who she is. It could probably stand to be a little less subtly defined, but since it's never central to the plot, the understatement feels less like cowardice and more like a justified character choice.
If there's any justice, The Mitchells vs. the Machines will pick up a devoted following on streaming, but I can't help but wonder what kind of word-of-mouth success it could've been with a real theatrical run. But Rianda's debut is a hilarious and heartwarming family adventure that certainly doesn't deserve to get lost in the Netflix shuffle.