Frenetic scenes over-stuffed with pop art/comic-bookish visuals, politically-savvy “tech is taking over” messaging and a handful of seriously silly and over-the-top moments give “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” its fizz and buzz.
And Oscar winner Olivia Colman, voicing a cell phone digital assistant app out for revenge, is worth a laugh or three. Throw in Maya Rudolph and a generally colorless voice cast doesn’t seem like the dead weight it might with a muted Danny McBride and unamusing turns by SNL folk and Eric Andre in other roles.
That adds up to a somewhat fun if cluttered and fatiguing animated action romp of the short attention span school. Produced by Sony Animation and sold to Netflix, it’s a more manic “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and the sort of animated comedy that gains swoons from some quarters, and is forgotten by Awards Season.
To be fair, catching up with any film just as the wind (gas) has gone out of its breathless hype is always a little deflating. But my honest reaction was a half dozen good laughs, dozen more decent chuckles, a shrug at the rank sentimentality (better handled in “Meatballs”) and occasional annoyance at all the intentional visual overkill, meant to make the viewer ignore how slack and predictable this all is.
The hook here? An aspiring filmmaker, a teen Youtube regular thanks to her “Dog Cop” comedies starring the family pug, is heading for film school. But a family feud with her more low-tech, pragmatic (“Can you make a living doing that?”) Dad causes Mr. Outdoorsy/Tool Handy (Nick Offerman wasn’t available?) patriarch to pile everybody into the ancient “learn to drive a stick” station wagon for a cross-country road trip.
Dad’s all “unobstructed eye contact” (for 30 seconds) at dinner in this cell-phone addicted household. Everybody else is into their digital PAL (Apple-Siri with sinister side), daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson) is annoyed that she’s finally found her “tribe” and is being delayed in joining it by square Dad (McBride, not giving us much) and Mom (Rudolph) isn’t taking her side.
But as they settle in for the arduous drive and make that necessary kid brother (co-director Michael Rianda, sounding like an adult voicing a little boy) visit to Dino Stop, wouldn’t you know it? That’s the moment the robots take over.
That bit of business is cleverly handled as a sort of Apple product rollout, with heartless tech tycoon Mark (Eric Andre) assuring a screaming mob of fans that “we just gave your smort phone arms and legs.” And “I know what you’re thinking, ‘Are they gonna turn EVIL?'”
Sure enough, they do.
Next thing we know, humanity’s being trapped and readied for liftoff in “Human Fun Pods,” and the Mitchells — not their “perfect” neighbors the Poseys (John Legend and Chrissie Teigen, with Charlyne Yi voicing their daughter) — are humanity’s last hope.
Can they upload the “kill code” that will stop “The Machine Apocalypse?”
The “quest” takes them a journey by “camouflaged” station wagon, and an inner journey from people who are disconnected and at odds and “incapable of change” to a family that finds inner resources as they’re remembering dormant skills and forgotten teaching that will help them save the world.
There’s a wonderfully clever “donkey tour” of a Grand Canyon that floods that’s practically a throw-away moment. But the money scene? A mall full of Furbies, and every other damned gadget with a microchip in it, attacks them — toasters and drones, vending machines and those dolls that everybody had to have decades ago. Because they’re coming back, I tellya.
Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett forgettably voice a couple of glitchy robots who become co-conspirators.
But Colman, as a cell phone assistant who’s been wronged, steals the show, a gadget that we’re always leaning on for “the world’s knowledge” put right at our fingertips, but which e keep dropping into toilets.
There are vocal and visual interjections filling out this adventure, little “Batman” the comic and original TV series flourishes, Youtube videos and real-life photos mixed in with the animation and Katie voicing over this or that effect tossed in for a laugh.
“Maybe this would be less horrifying with the cat filter” on her phone, activated. Not quite a laugh, any more than the character’s incessant efforts to visualize what she’s experiencing as a student film.
But the sentiment, pithily summed up by Mom, stings.
“Who would have thought a tech company wouldn’t have our best interests at heart?”
Funny enough, but overhyped — kind of a mixed-bag of a film, one that makes me hope “The Mitchells” may not fare all that well vs. the other animated offerings this year.
MPA Rating: PG for action and some language
Cast: The voices of Abbi Jacobson, Maya Rudolph, Danny McBride, Olivia Colman, Eric André, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, and Chrissie Tiegen and John Legend.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe. A Sony Animation/Netflix release.
Running time: 1:53