Sony Pictures Animation has been making feature length films since 2006 and the range of quality has been very, very wide. This storied studio is responsible for one of the best films of 2018 in any category, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” But they also must claim the embarrassingly horrible “Emoji Movie” from just a year prior.
The other big animation studios miss now and then too. DreamWorks had “Shark Tale.” Pixar had “Cars 2.” But I don’t believe any of them should be judged by their worst, or even best, efforts. For me, it’s the balance of the work across the years that sets my expectations. This is because each studio has developed a distinct tonal fingerprint that makes their plots and rhythms instantly recognizable. Directors and voice actors may come and go, but the tried-and-true formulas remain.
Sony’s latest is “The Mitchells vs. The Machines,” a sci-fi comedy out now on Netflix. From many of the same minds that brought us “Into the Spider-Verse,” this is a coming-of-age story, a dysfunctional family study and an allegory on technology and humanity’s disposable attention span. The film is rightfully earning praise for its placement of an unambiguously LGBT character at the center of the plot, and I appreciated how uncomplicated and natural they made that part of her life seem.
Katie’s bumpy relationship with her father is set up as the dramatic fuel that makes the movie go, but their troubles come from his apparent lack of interest in her aspirations as a filmmaker, not from who she is fundamentally. The fact that Katie is going off to college complicates Rick’s feelings about her career choice and, sadly, locks the script into a fairly uncreative track. Well-meaning, over-eager parents have been running afoul of whip-smart, impenetrable teens since forever in films. Especially in animated films.
I was really hoping the quirky style of “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” would lead to some new insight on this familiar father-daughter dynamic, but it doesn’t. The arc from establishing impasse to temporary reprieve to devastating setback to ultimate understanding is so common, so casual, I found myself losing interest in the tracing of it. The heartwarming endpoint was just too inevitable to look forward to.
As with most Sony Animation projects, no expense was spared on the voice casting. Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph and Olivia Coleman all sound amazing, even if they don’t always have amazing things to say. I do have to say that I found it consistently awkward that director Michael Rianda chose to voice Katie’s younger brother Aaron himself. Little Aaron sounded like a strange, fully grown man most of the time, and it completely broke the spell for me.
There might be a lot of flat jokes to endure, but the blend of 2D and 3D animation that visually define “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” is fresh and immersive. The sci-fi elements have a delightfully retro feel and most of the action set pieces display impressive originality. If the Mitchells essentially inhabit the exact midpoint on a continuum between the Croods and the Incredibles, I think their story might have benefitted from fewer references to how weird they supposedly are. They struck me as a pretty standard American unit, which did not diminish their charms. The frequently clunky and predictable script did that, but thankfully not too much.
This movie is really fun to look at and occasionally just as fun to think about. It’s a treat to watch Katie and her family fight off a robot uprising, but their heroic journey would have been better if the writers had taken their foot off the emotional gas a bit.