There are so many films out there today, and there does not appear to be any slowdown in their production. When motion pictures were first created, there was a great deal of consternation as to their function. Even in the late nineteenth century when the invention was in its infancy, people understood the power of images. If for whatever reason you do not want to believe me, look up some time what was popular in photography right before the advent of movies. I will save you some of the trouble: taking still life pictures of the deceased. A problem with early photos was movement. If a subject shifted in the slightest while the film was exposed, it created a blurring effect. The dead, thankfully for cameramen, do not have locomotion. Thus, you had pictures of loved ones, sometimes inserted into family portraits, and celebrities as they appeared in their last moments. It was serious business, and when it came time for cameras to be able to record movement, there was earnest debate as to how to use this new, important technology. It was considered art of the highest order, and no lowbrow forms of entertainment would do to be captured on these devices. And yet the early nickelodeons demonstrated people’s desire for a little bit of fun. Fun pushes innovation, and if nothing else, you can say that is at the heart of much of what goes on in The Mitchells vs the Machines.
I enjoy films like The Mitchells vs the Machines, despite being animated, because it sets the world in which it occupies right away. Through Katie Mitchell’s (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) narration, we learn that her weird family are the only humans left on Earth in the wake of a robot apocalypse. Why are they weird? This is told in flashback. Katie is the oldest daughter of Linda (voiced by Maya Rudolph) and Rick (voiced by Danny McBride). She has a younger brother, Aaron (voiced by Michael Rianda), and a wall-eyed pug named Monchi. Katie always saw herself as different, and this with a family like hers. Rick is obsessed with the outdoors, survival, and using as little technology as possible; Linda is super positive all the time, but consistently compares her and her family to the seemingly perfect Poseys; and Aaron is all dinosaurs, all the time. Because Katie has trouble being accepted at school and, aside from Aaron, by her family, she retreats into a world she creates through her budding abilities as a moviemaker. The growing gulf between her and her parents is most evident with her dad. He never seems to have the time or is interested in what she is doing, and she finds his lack of technical knowhow the rest of the time frustrating. Linda desires peace, particularly as Katie is about to go off to film school on the other side of the country in California. Rick then comes up with the idea to, instead of flying to her destination, their family would embark on a cross-country road-trip together. Up until this point, there had been scattered in references to an Apple-esque corporation, complete with an artificial intelligence named PAL (voiced by Olivia Colman) and developed by the company’s creator Mark (voiced Eric André). As the Mitchells carry on with their trek, Mark unveils a new invention to replace PAL, a set of robot assistants designed to do everything for you with a simple command. PAL is none too pleased with being rendered obsolete, and instead orders the robots to round up every last human on Earth. This is the aforementioned robot apocalypse, and it catches our title family as they visit a roadside, dinosaur themed attraction for Aaron’s sake. They are the only one to evade capture, and they also befriend two of the damaged automatons. Renamed Deborahbot (voiced by Fred Armisen) and Eric (voiced by Beck Bennett) their malfunction causes them to assist the Mitchells. They also reveal the existence of a kill code, which they possess in their memory banks, and which needs to be uploaded into PAL’s system either at its headquarters in Silicon Valley, or from one of its retail outlets. The Mitchells first attempt is thwarted when they are attacked by a giant Furby at a mall. They then try an assault on PAL’s main base of operations, but their robot disguises are uncovered when footage of Katie saying she is faking her cooperation to get her father to go along with her plans surfaces for Rick. Linda and Rick are caught, but Katie and Aaron manage to escape. In order to save her family, and the world, Katie then straps Monchi to the front of their car (the robots heads basically explode trying to figure out whether the pooch is a dog, pig, or loaf of bread), and using the skills her father taught her with driving a stick, is able to snatch the phone from which PAL controls everything. Destroying it, along with some help from the whole family, returns the world to normal, and they all have a better appreciation of each other in the process.
I enjoy The Mitchells vs the Machines, even if it is animated and possibly the work of a lunatic. Regardless, I have quite the random sense of humor, and I appreciate weird because I, too, see myself in the same light. And yet I sometimes feel like weirdness is becoming too commonplace. Strange is only strange if it is somehow on the fringe of what society sees as “in,” or cool. If such attitudes are widely celebrated, are they truly all that weird? It may be a “chicken and egg” argument, but it still bears some thinking. I prize uniqueness, and that is one aspect of the film with which I connected. This brings me to my Faith. In a world that is increasingly secular, irreverent (my apologies, but I fail to see the reverence behind the faux spirituality of the current day), and fixated on the immoral, being a practicing Catholic is practically countercultural. Much of what the Church teaches as behaviors you should avoid are seen by an alarming majority as permissible. As such, it is difficult to fit in sometimes to larger crowds, or at least that has been my experience. When people know you do not follow their lifestyle, that you believe in a different way of acting, they tend to write you off in some form or another. In an unspoken way, they do not want the mirror of Faith to be held up to them and feel like they are doing something wrong. Katie learned this lesson in her own way when, as a child, she showed her class an early film she made and no one got it. From that point on, she is on a quest to find “her people.” I am alone in my family in attending Mass, never mind my prayer life, much like Katie and her interest in making films. While Katie does come to terms with her parents and they learn to accept her life choices, she goes off to be with “her people” at film school. Mine became the group of Catholic young adults I met in the years following my graduation from Loyola. Together, we can thumb our nose at what society says is conventional.
I see The Mitchells vs the Machines as being a great family film. It does not go for the low hanging fruit that is slipping in adult jokes to kid’s films. It is consistently bizarre throughout on all levels, and there is merit in that approach. I suppose the Furby jokes, as well as the cracks about the dangers of corporate data mining, would go over children’s heads. They are the exceptions to the rule. It is a warm film with some genuinely funny parts. Enjoy without hesitation.