ST. LOUIS — Animated films can have secret powers, especially on adults. For a couple hours, your mind is put at ease by an earnest yet quirky tale of survival, with a family of weirdos (the Mitchells) being the unlikely last line of defense against a corrupt social media software company and its legions of robots (the Machines).
The genius in Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe's film, "The Mitchells vs. the Machines," is that it taps into the timely phenomenon of cell phones, the internet, and its rabid power over the human population. Instead of preaching and beating us down with numbers, this fast-moving adventure piece plays with the entrapments, rewards, and ultimate madness that the far reach of the net can have on a family. Take a look at the Mitchells.
Rick (voiced by Danny McBride) can fix anything in the house, but can no longer connect with his movie-making, college-bound daughter, Katie (Abbi Jacobsen). Linda (Maya Rudolph) teaches little kids at school but finds that her biggest hurdles in teaching comes at home with Rick, Katie, and the young Aaron (Rianda). Whether she's placing a gold star on her husband's cheek for communicating with her daughter or trying to take the ultimate family picture that will shine on Instagram, Linda blends the odd with the sweet in refreshing ways for an animated movie matriarch.
It takes everything that drives you (and your parents) crazy about technology, and finds intelligent and original ways to explore the double-edged sword of a cell phone or tablet. Most dads show their kids how to drive a stick during a lazy Sunday stroll across town. Here, Rick screams instructions on how to correctly drive a beat-up station wagon while escaping from the clutches of the broken-bad phone app personality, Pal (Olivia Colman, delightfully chewing scenery). Are you ready for Rudolph's heroine to go full-blown "Kill Bill" on a group of superpowered robots? You better be.
"The Mitchells vs. the Machines" indeed celebrates the history of movies and its parlay into real life adventures almost as much as it celebrates the everlasting, and quite maddening, bond between family. Nothing is taken too serious here, but a lot of scenes and dialogue quips will make you laugh out loud. Unlike most films in its genre, it gets better as the film gets older. Like most animated tales, it ends with an emotional whopper that hit me especially hard, with expert usage of Sigur Ros' "Hoppipolla."
Thankfully, Rianda and Rowe aren't trying to take the phone out of your hand, or tell you to shut the laptop. Technology isn't promoted poorly here, even in a world where evil robots and software apps can ruin a nice city and lock people up in pods that have free Wi-Fi. Instead, their message is about the unique ways that technology keeps us connected, helps us in a time of need, and will also drive us nuts just like a human being could.
The voice work is stellar across the board. McBride invokes his usual wacky style of comedy into the imperfect yet caring Rick, while the SNL alum Rudolph finds some freedom in Linda's wild mom. Eric Andre's Mark, the guy who played Tony Stark and unknowingly unleashed an Ultron-type chaos, has a few very funny scenes with Colman, who is having a blast here--playing a cell phone. Yep, she's a betrayed emoji who asks her henchman bot at one point to place her on a table so she can flop around angrily.
Here, the bag of tricks is seemingly endless. That's what makes it a brilliant animated film. It's surprising, smart, funny, and doesn't take itself too seriously. You don't have to reinvent the genre, just show us something new and find a way to entertain everybody. This one appeals to you, mom, dad, the siblings, the aunts and uncles, and especially the grandparents. As the filmmakers announce at the end, "a film made by a bunch of weirdos."
Animated films can have special powers, because they remind us that being weird is cool and good. It's not something to be afraid of, or a personality trait that doesn't age well. It's a family's indelible brand of weirdness that sets them apart, just like "The Mitchells vs. the Machines" stands high above most entries from the genre. You don't just walk away entertained, but enriched by the experience.
Rianda and Rowe's movie is a rare bird, weird but great, like the Mitchells. Now, if you would excuse me, I am going to attempt a "Rick Mitchell Special," where I drive an old leaky car over a fleet of crashed cars and flying robots while explaining to my kid how to properly drive a stick shift. Well, in my head at least.
The best kind of animated family film opens up the mind to all the wonders that we thought were dead and gone. Laugh like a kid again, dream big, and laugh plenty.
This is my certified fresh pick of the week.