Review of The Mitchells vs the Machines (2021)
Seen in 2021.
A “weird” nuclear family saves the world from genocidal artificial intelligence.
Though the style is updated for video filtering on contemporary social media, the script is loaded with the baggage of traditional US animation: Caricature, anthropocentrism, anthropomorphism, moral dichotomy, harmless extreme violence, etc. The moral values are narrow US nuclear-family values, only lightly touched by the era of the production.
Animism features less heavily here than in the similar Next Gen (2018), but much else is repeated, including the Apple-inspired AI apocalypse, the motif of using robots to defend against said apocalypse, and a goofy dog. The Mitchells’ dog is a pug, which is ironic because the goofiness of the breed is a direct result of human-directed inbreeding. You might read that as a metaphor for the level of imitation in this production. At least the dog doesn’t talk.
Whereas Next Gen had an absent father, technology-aligned other adults, and a child protagonist turned against technology, The Mitchells has a father who is present but aligned against technology and therefore against the tech-savvy teenage protagonist. Given that the movie is explicitly set in 2020 and the protagonist is about to start college, the father was probably born around 1975, not 1945. Making him computer-illiterate despite his age is part of the tendency toward caricature and obsolete tradition. In line with that tendency, the evil AI works pretty much the same way it would in Star Trek (1966), only with a more vibrant personality. The evil AI’s question, about the value of humankind, is just as empty here as in TNG (1987): There is never any doubt that the heroes will succeed on a rhetorical level to prove the value of humankind by fiat, to the arbitrary standards of Sony’s entertainment division, which made the film.
Plot holes abound. The climax shows both that the AI’s computing is centralized on a phone and that the phone is not waterproof. Most viewers would know that a real contemporary iPhone can be splashed with water without short-circuiting, and that Apple’s real AI is mostly server-side, so that Siri still tracks you when you buy a new phone. The writers were not trying to sell a beliveable technological scenario—and didn’t care to include even one proper close-up on a Robertson head to show what the father is obsessed about—but they were also not trying to sell a beliveable emotional scenario. Protagonist Katie is about 17–18 but has problems with alienation that are typical at 13–14. Her brother Aaron is obsessed with dinosaurs, something that usually happens around 4, but his only personal development concerns first love, again something more common at 13–14. Judging by his appearance, he’s somewhere in the middle. Judging by his voice, he’s 35. None of the characters gel.
I think it’s all board-driven, meant primarily to be visually engaging, with very little concern for what makes sense emotionally or intellectually. It works, in that it really is visually engaging. The animation as such is good. Callbacks and clichés tie it together and keep it moving as it updates the allegory of The Croods (2013).