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Mike Rianda’s ‘The Mitchells vs The Machines’: Smart, funny and woke

Mohammed Rayaan | Updated on May 08, 2021

Rollercoaster ride: The Mitchells are the only ones who can save humanity from evil robots   -  NETFLIX

What does the father of a soon-to-be film-maker do to patch up their fragile relationship? Head for a road trip with the family, of course, and battle evil robots on the way

* The film is a splash of colours, combing traditional digital animation with hand-drawn 2D effects and occasional graphics

* ‘Most action heroes have a lot of strengths. My family only has weaknesses,’ says Katie

* Evil PAL, voiced by the immensely talented Olivia Colman, is charming and funny

* Towards the climax, we are in a constant state of awe, caught in laughter, car chases and explosions

****

Meet the Mitchells, a family of four. Rick and Linda’s daughter Katie loves making films and uploads them on her YouTube channel. Her brother Aaron is a dorky, dinosaur-loving geek who calls up random numbers from a telephone directory and says, "Hi. Would you like to talk with about dinosaurs? No? Okay. Thank you."

They are the stars of Mitchells Vs The Machines, a sci-fi comedy animation now streaming on Netflix, produced by the talented duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who gave us the ingenious Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 2018 and The Lego Movie in 2014.

The 113-minute-long movie is a splash of colours, combining traditional digital animation with hand-drawn 2D effects and occasional graphics that pop up across the screen like a comic strip. Director Mike Rianda has crafted The Mitchells with a smart plot – and a laugh-a-minute script. It is amazing to see how, with just one tiny dot as an eye ball for the characters, he manages to evoke such hilarity.

Rick (voiced by Danny McBride) is an over-protective dad who thinks it is his responsibility to safeguard his children from failures. Linda (voiced by Maya Rudolph) seeks to fix things between her husband and daughter. Aaron, voiced by the director himself, is close to his sister, has a crush on their neighbour, and thinks, eats and breathes dinos.

“Most action heroes have a lot of strengths. My family only has weaknesses,” says Katie, the lead star and the narrator (voiced by Abbi Jacobson). She churns out funny movies starring their pet, Monchi, a squint-eyed pug who can’t ever catch anything that is thrown at him. Monchi's role is the tour de force of the plot.

Katie gets accepted at a film-making college. She just can’t wait to get away from home. But dad has other plans — a family road trip, in a dusty and dented car, all the way to drop her to her new college. That's when the movie picks up pace.

Meanwhile, we have also been witnessing the inauguration of a new tech at Silicon Valley, somewhat reminiscent of the launch of Apple. When tech entrepreneur Mark Bowman (Eric Andre) unveils a sleek new robot, things do not go according to script. His highly powerful artificial intelligence machine, PAL, decides to capture humans and launch them off into space in WiFi-enabled pods.

Evil PAL, voiced by the immensely talented Olivia Colman, is charming and funny. Her words and tone are wrapped in mockery, and her lines about the human race and its over-dependence of phones make you reflect about contemporary times. The robots take over the earth and only the Mitchells can save humanity.

Not all robots are evil, of course. The Mitchells make friends with two dysfunctional robots — Deborahbot 5000 (Fred Armisen) and Eric (Beck Bennett). The subtext is rather interesting, too. When Rick imitates their style of mechanical walking, Eric says, “Just to educate you, that’s a hurtful stereotype”.

Since Katie is a movie buff, there are also a great many pop culture references. When, for instance, PAL summons robots in a scene, one of the machines crushes a mobile phone in a subtle tribute to a similar scene from the Terminator Series. Many of Katie's short film posters resemble those of Hollywood movies such as the Mad Max and Dawn of the Dead.

Towards the climax, we are in a constant state of awe, caught in laughter, car chases and explosions. Amped up by background music that changes its tempo from danger to soothing calmness, the score turns almost like a concert towards the end.

Katie is, perhaps, the most diversely written animation character. She is queer and while her orientation is never openly revealed, she is shown wearing a ‘rainbow’ patch and tells her brother to never be afraid of who he is, to never let his identity be broken.

You get to understand what it signifies when Linda asks her, “Are you and Jade official and will you be bringing her home with you for thanksgiving?” Animators have come a long way since their early days, and it is good to know that children are being shown how an often marginalised community can be depicted in a rainbow of empathy and humour.

If there’s one thing disappointing about the film, it is the fact that we can’t watch it in theatres on a big screen. That would have expanded our enjoyment level — somewhat like the great big eyes of Monchi.

Published on May 08, 2021

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