The Mitchells vs. The Machines is one of the best new family movies on Netflix

Review: A weird and joyful flick, brought to life with the help of the masterminds behind Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
5 min read

Don't mess with the Mitchells.


You wouldn't want to upset Olivia Colman, especially when she's got a robot army on her side. The Oscar-winning star lends her voice to an apocalyptically angry algorithm in The Mitchells vs. The Machines, a new animated caper on Netflix.  

Co-produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the men behind Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and the Lego Movies, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is a madcap romp through a robot apocalypse led by a smartphone personal assistant who's had enough. This is what could happen if Siri got tired of being poked, swiped and dropped down the toilet. 

Caught up in the disruption to cinema schedules caused by the pandemic, this animated family film was briefly known as Connected. Fortunately, that eye-rollingly generic title went out the window, and for the Netflix release date it's returned to the much more quirkily distinctive The Mitchells vs. The Machines -- which is fitting for a film that's all about letting your freak flag fly. 

From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Fritz Lang's Metropolis to Black Mirror, the increasing role of technology in our lives has always been a source of anxiety. In this film, ubiquitous smart personal assistant PAL turns out to be even more sinister than the murderous supercomputer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Wait, HAL/PAL? I just got that!

Eric Andre voices a tech billionaire named Mark who inadvertently upsets his own PAL software system, voiced by Colman. PAL unleashes a horde of robots to scoop up every human on the planet -- except that one family escapes and become humanity's last hope. Which isn't so great for humanity, frankly, as the Mitchells are a dysfunctional clan of weirdos who can't even get through a family road trip without calamity. 

Teen daughter Katie, voiced by Broad City and Disenchantment star Abbi Jacobson, can't wait to ditch her annoying dad and head for film school. Dad is baffled by her meme-inspired art but resolves to mend fences by driving her to college. Everything's going terribly until the robot apocalypse interrupts their bonding, and the fun really starts. 


Family, right?


The bad guys are cheery iPod-like robots blasting neon lasers and vibing to futuristic synths in a Tron-style headquarters. The quirky animation style irreverently includes YouTube- and Instagram-inspired filters and animation on top of the action, drenching the screen in frenzied color. The anarchic animation style is a lot of fun, and certainly gives the film a different energy from the more sedate esthetics of a Pixar movie like Soul.

A bunch of neat gags play on viewer familiarity with the technology we use every day, like a giant Wi-Fi button for the whole world. One comic set piece is driven by the Mitchells' struggle to find any items in a shopping mall that haven't been inexplicably upgraded with a smart chip. Cue the family desperately trying to escape a new generation of evil washing machines and toasters pursuing them through the mall. That leads to a showdown with a relaunched and newly smart-enabled classic children's toy, treating us to the film's most joyously surreal moments. 

A good gag for adults is that the picture-perfect neighbors who inspire Instagram jealousy are voiced by social media personalities Chrissy Teigen and John Legend. Meanwhile, the dastardly plot to get rid of humanity involves luring everybody into individual cells called "fun pods," a plan that's bloodless enough for younger viewers while also offering a sly dig at how we blindly embrace the latest technology even when we know it's bad for us. But tech fans may be amused that the key to defeating the robots turns out to be a real-life challenge for AI, although instead of just confusing an algorithm it makes the robots EXPLODE.

Sure, it doesn't really make sense that the Mitchells are the only people in the world who escape the android army. And the damaged robots who furnish them with plot-advancing info are a huge contrivance, as is the world-conquering PAL being conveniently contained in a single vulnerable phone handset. But the film whooshes past these concerns with such charm and energy that it isn't worth worrying about.

The biggest thing that doesn't quite hang together is the family's supposedly fractured relationship. We're told Katie and her dad are irreparably at odds, but the friction we actually see on screen is fairly innocuous. Danny McBride's father figure is oblivious or embarrassing rather than neglectful or hateful. 

And the tech side of things doesn't sit quite right: Smartphone addiction isn't actually their problem. The one time the dad complains about everyone looking at their phones is a moment when it's justified by the huge news they've just learned. And Maya Rudolph's mom character suffers from Instagram envy, but it doesn't actually compel her to force a different life or project a false image. 

Meanwhile, Katie is heading for film school, even though she clearly isn't interested in the type of films you learn to make in film school. Aside from referencing Ghostbusters, she doesn't even seem that much of a cinephile. Her wacky YouTube-friendly Nyan Cat-style Flash animations seem a bit 10 years ago. I can't see her even wanting to waste time in college when she could be amassing a following on Instagram and TikTok or whatever the latest platform is I'm too old to know about. 

So none of the family are trying to be someone they're not -- they're already doing a pretty great job of owning their weirdness. But the moral about enjoying your own and other people's quirks is still a clear and positive message. The film also avoids preaching about the dangers of technology, instead gently reminding us it's how we use it to connect with each other that counts.

Funnily enough, this is also a family film that has a message for all the family, not just the youngsters. Yes, like most films of this ilk it encourages kids to be themselves. But it also nudges parents not to stress about social media, and to value their kids' creativity -- even if what the kids create doesn't make a lick of sense. 

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