Review: The Mitchells Vs. The Machines : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the new animated film The Mitchells Vs. The Machines, a family road trip turns into a wild adventure and a battle against an actual robot uprising. And while some of the themes are familiar, the inventive execution and the high energy make it one of the summer's first real crowd-pleasers.
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A Family Road Trip Gets Glitchy In 'The Mitchells Vs. The Machines'

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A Family Road Trip Gets Glitchy In 'The Mitchells Vs. The Machines'

A Family Road Trip Gets Glitchy In 'The Mitchells Vs. The Machines'

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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

Before we get started, I wanted to ask you a favor. POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR has changed a lot in the time that it's been on, so you know we mean it when we say you can really help build the future of the show if you let us know what you think. And you can do it right now over at npr.org/springsurvey. And yes, we want to hear from you if you've been listening for 10 years and you've seen all this change happen with us. We also really want to hear from you, though, if you're new here. We want to know what you're looking for, what you're glad to see, what you think might be missing and whatever else you want us to know. Any listener, any way you got here, head over to npr.org/springsurvey. Thank you for listening. We are listening too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLMES: In the new animated film, "The Mitchells Versus The Machines," a family road trip turns into a wild adventure and a battle against an actual robot uprising. And what follows is a lot of fun.

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

The voice cast includes Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Eric Andre and even Olivia Colman. And while some of the themes are familiar, the inventive execution and the high energy make it one of the summer's first real crowd-pleasers. I'm Glen Weldon.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about "The Mitchells Versus The Machines" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Here with me and Glen from their home in Washington, D.C. is NPR producer Mallory Yu.

Hey there, Mallory.

MALLORY YU, BYLINE: Hey.

HOLMES: Wonderful to have you back on that side of the microphone. Also with us from Denver is Monica Castillo, an arts and culture reporter with Colorado Public Radio. That makes me so happy every time I hear it.

Welcome back, Monica.

MONICA CASTILLO, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

HOLMES: "The Mitchells Versus The Machines" comes from Sony Pictures Animation. It was written and directed by Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe, who worked together on "Gravity Falls." The production team includes Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who have produced a lot of very good animated films from "The Lego Movie" to "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse."

The story here is that the Mitchell family, which includes Dad, Mom, teenage film buff Katie and young dinosaur fan Aaron, piles into the car for a family road trip, but at the same time, a tech mogul named Mark presents the new version of his voice assistant, which comes in the form of a robot. Unfortunately, he hasn't planned as well as he thought for the possibility of robots becoming self-aware and evil. And before you know it, the Mitchells find themselves the unlikely guardians of the future of humanity, but only if they can overcome the family fights and insecurities that have particularly Katie and her father at loggerheads. I want to start with you, Monica. What did you think of this film?

CASTILLO: I don't think I've laughed this hard at a movie in maybe all of 2021 so far. It was just delightful from beginning to end. I love the characters. I love the zany sense of humor, the sort of hyperkinetic bursts of colors and all these different memes and references that's coming at you at, like, 100 miles per hour. It was such a fun ride. I actually am excited to share this movie with a lot of other folks.

HOLMES: Yeah, me too. How about you, Mallory? What did you think?

YU: Yeah, I had so much fun watching this movie. I kind of knew what I was getting into because the team behind this - Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, like you said - produced one of my favorite animated movies of all time, "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse." Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe both worked on "Gravity Falls," and you can tell, in the best way possible. Like, the humor is wacky, it's surreal and referential, but it's grounded in real human emotion and reaction.

And my favorite thing about this particular movie is that it feels like it couldn't exist as anything but an animated movie. There are visual gags that just wouldn't hit right in a live-action remake. You know, there's a one-off joke in which the Siri-esque artificial intelligence named PAL wants to express her rage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MITCHELLS VERSUS THE MACHINES")

BECK BENNETT: (As PAL MAX Robot) Great leader, things with the Mitchell family went poorly.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)

OLIVIA COLMAN: (As PAL) Place me on the table. I wish to flop around in a blind rage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

YU: It just wouldn't be the same in a live-action, and I just love and appreciated that the animation took such a forefront in this movie.

HOLMES: Yeah, I agree. And, you know, there actually are, like, animated bits within the animated movie. It's a - there are, like, sort of little animated drops of different animation styles that are meant to call to mind what Katie is interested in as an artist and a potentially soon-to-be film student. And I love that, too. Glen, you wrote about this film at npr.org. What did you like about it?

WELDON: Well, I just had a blast with it. I would say that I think the fuel mixture is a bit off. It's 70% Mitchells, 30% machines, and I would have flipped that because the robot scenes are the joke-dense scenes. The family's scenes are feelings-dense scenes, and I'm a fan of jokes, and I have a desiccated, blackened husk where my heart should be. But I did watch this film twice, and it's 20 minutes in. We have to warn people about this opening, I feel, which is incredibly generic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MITCHELLS VERSUS THE MACHINES")

ABBI JACOBSON: (As Katie Mitchell) We all want to be the perfect family, but who's perfect, right? Every family has its challenges from picture day to picky eaters. For my family, our greatest challenge - probably the machine apocalypse.

WELDON: It's not quite, you know, record scratch, freeze-frame, yep, that's me. I bet you're wondering - it's not quite that, but it's so close to it. And just as a narrative gambit - like, as a storytelling thing - I don't fit in, I make weird art, and get a load of my brother over here. He's so weird. He likes dinosaurs. It's like, every kid loves dinosaurs. What are you doing, movie? If the point of the film there was to say that every teenager feels this way, that's one thing. But this film agrees that they're weird in a way that I didn't.

I do like - one thing that does set this film apart, especially those opening 20 minutes, is that the conflict between Katie and her dad isn't generic. It's very specific. It's very sharp. It feels more real than you would get in a lot of animated films.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MITCHELLS VERSUS THE MACHINES")

JACOBSON: (As Katie Mitchell) I can't wait for you guys to see my new movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JACOBSON: (As Katie Mitchell) What? What's the face?

DANNY MCBRIDE: (As Rick Mitchell) I just wonder, do you really think you can make a living with this stuff?

JACOBSON: (As Katie Mitchell) Dad, can you finish watching it, at least?

MCBRIDE: (As Rick Mitchell) I will. But I just worry that you're going to be all the way in California and, you know, we're not going to be able to help you, you know, if things don't pan out.

WELDON: My only complaint is that every time we go back to it, we kind of hit that same button the same way. But, man, when the robots are front and center - there is a brilliant set piece in a mall that I just think is, like, the high part of the film. It's so good. And then finally, you have Maya Rudolph. You wait until the last act to let her out of her cage, but when she does, when you do, it's great. So I had a lot of fun with this film.

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, so did I, and I think I like the family stuff more than you do.

WELDON: Shocking.

HOLMES: I like the robot stuff also. But ultimately, I think when you say it's feelings-heavy, the family stuff, I agree, but it's also comedy-based, and it's also action-y (ph) when the family is out, you know, having adventures. And, you know, a lot of family movies are kids movies, and they may or may not have anything to say about families. But I like the fact that this one, you really do look at that whole family and the way that the conflict - you wrote about this in your review, Glen - the conflict between Dad and Katie has sort of been the whole family's problem and how Mom kind of tries to navigate it and how the little brother tries to navigate it and kind of how it affects - like, it brings down everything they all try to do together.

And I do think it is a movie that is about the heroism of family - right? - which can mean - you know, if you look at the family photos in the credits of a lot of the people that worked on the movie, that can look like lots of different things, right? It doesn't have to be mom, dad, kid, kid, dog. But it is about the family unit, and it - you know, that unit coming together. It's not just a family film in the sense that it's a little kids movie.

Monica, I want to ask you what you thought about the tech stuff in this film, 'cause I do think some of that's pretty funny and clever, and I enjoyed it.

CASTILLO: Oh, it's definitely pretty funny and pretty clever, especially - even how tech permeates the lives of the Mitchells.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MITCHELLS VERSUS THE MACHINES")

MCBRIDE: (As Rick Mitchell) After a long day at work, nice to see your faces, bathed in ghoulish blue light. OK, you know what - brilliant idea. This is our last night together before Katie leaves, so let's savor this. How about we put our phones down, and we can make 10 seconds of unobstructed family eye contact?

CASTILLO: And also looking at how it's everywhere, it's also in the mall. It's also - you know, these are the devices that Katie gets to know her new friends with. But then, you know, it does have this sort of pointed critique about, yeah, that permeance everywhere throughout our culture is actually potentially a bad thing. But then I feel like at the very end - I don't want to spoil anything there - feels like it pulls its punch a little bit.

WELDON: Yeah.

CASTILLO: It seemed like it was heading towards this, really, like, yeah, no, this is bad. This is, like, a terrible thing. This could set us up for a disaster - and then, but you know what? There's also some good in it. This is also, you know, the tech that Katie uses to create her film. This is also, you know, the way that her dad now gets to see her art. So maybe it's not all evil. It was an interesting sort of, I guess, quick pivot.

YU: There's a line close to the end that's like, who knew that taking people's private data and giving all of it to an artificial intelligence would be bad? And I hollered. Like, that's the exact reason I don't use Siri or Alexa or Google Home. And then it made me think, oh, no, am I Rick Mitchell? I liked that line because it made really clear to me who the true villain of this movie really is. It's not necessarily the technology itself, because, you know, like Monica said, this technology allows Katie to express her creativity. It allows her to connect and find her people.

So the villain isn't necessarily the technology or the devices. It's, you know, the Silicon Valley tech bros who are stealing and farming our data that are the real villains or the sort of planned obsolescence model that these tech companies use to keep people buying and honestly devaluing this technology and our devices. You know, I think that's kind of where the critique that this movie was trying to make was strongest.

WELDON: Yeah, Mallory, you do sound like Rick Mitchell there.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: And that's cool 'cause I'm a sucker for these jokes. I'm a sucker for any, you know, Dad gets freaked out by a pop-up. Like, it's low-hanging fruit, but I'm always going to laugh at it. And can we talk for a second about how much fun Olivia Colman is having in this movie? Now, I won't spoil what she plays, but, man, she's good. And it just reminded me that, you know, she made her bones in comedy, like "Peep Show." That's when I first came across her. And she's just so good - her timing, her delivery, everything about it. It's so great to have this Olivia Colman back for a little bit.

HOLMES: Yeah, I agree. It's funny - when she was so funny in her Oscar speech and so charming, there was a lot of kind of, like, oh, who knew? Like, Olivia Colman, this dignified British actress - and I was like...

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: ...Trained comedian, trained comedian.

What I liked about the humor of the film is that it is so specific because the issue, I think, is always - I agree with Mallory that it - you know, it has a critique underlying it. But I think the - and I agree with Monica, too, that there's a little bit of a punch-pull, but I think the reason for that is it's so easy for a movie like this to turn into, like, the darn kids and their cell phones. And it can become something that feels like it's just scoldy (ph), like the last 70% of "WALL-E" to me. You don't want to go too far in that direction. And I think I like the fact that the film recognizes, like, look for a kid like Katie, the ability to get on there and make friends with the different kinds of kids, even if they're not the kids she grew up around, I think, is - I appreciated the fact that the film acknowledged those things.

But I do think in the end, what I enjoyed the most about it is that there are these two robots who are voiced by Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett who show up and are such a weird take on robots - like, how they come to be, but then what their personalities are.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MITCHELLS VERSUS THE MACHINES")

BENNETT: (As Eric) Glad those robots are gone.

FRED ARMISEN: (As Deborahbot 5000) Now it's just us humans with our very human faces.

BENNETT: (As Eric) Yes. My human guy name is Eric.

ARMISEN: (As Deborahbot 5000) My name is also Eric. No, I mean, Deborahbot 5000.

HOLMES: And a couple times, they seem like they're going to, you know, go into a couple of fairly cliched directions, but I thought they remain nicely weird in a way that I appreciated. And I actually think the movie stays weird in a way I liked. The movie is odd at several different spots. You know, and it's hard to talk about a movie like this 'cause you don't want to talk about, like, this joke and this joke and this joke.

Glen talked about that mall sequence. There are a couple of moments in that mall sequence that are really bent in a great way. They're really kind of, like, oh, this comes from a very specific kind of mind at play. I liked that a lot.

I like the voice performances here. I think Abbi Jacobson, who is Katie, is a lot of fun. This is a very different Danny McBride, I think, playing Rick, the dad. Rianda himself - one of the writers and directors - as Aaron, the little brother - I even like the idea of Chrissy Teigen and John Legend as the kind of Instagram couple that Mom feels, you know, intimidated by. There's a lot about this that I did really enjoy.

YU: That Chrissy Teigen and John Legend cameo just made me laugh out loud because it's such a delicious joke and such a reference on who Chrissy Teigen and John Legend are in, like, our society. But I'm not sure if I needed the kind of, like, big names like Conan O'Brien or Fred Armisen or Beck Bennett. I was kind of distracted by the names behind the voices and not always in a good way. I don't know if they added any extra zhuzh (ph) to those roles either.

I guess I think about someone like Sarah Vowell, who was a reporter and editor on "This American Life," and Brad Bird heard her voice and cast her to be Violet Parr in "The Incredibles." She's not an actor, but her voice is so singular that it made her character stand out. And I wish big studio animations like this would pay less attention to the name and more attention to, like, the quality of the voice and the extra something-something that they bring to the character, aside from the studio's ability to say, with Fred Armisen and Conan O'Brien.

HOLMES: Yeah, I think what I actually like about the robots is more the writing than the voicing. I think you're absolutely right that if you're going to have somebody in the movie because of who they are, like Chrissy Teigen is in this movie, just have it be a cameo, you know?

YU: Yeah. Like, I need it to be part of the joke, I think.

HOLMES: Yeah, I agree.

CASTILLO: I just want to give another shoutout to the animation style because it is so interesting and so visually sort of enrapturing. Like, you can't kind of take your eyes off of it, whether it's because of the color, whether it's because of the, you know, the amount of movement and motion that everything is happening. I was also really impressed - they do sort of, like, a mixed media approach. So it's - yeah, additional different styles. You have, like, the 3D animation. You also have, like, 2D sort of teenage sort of drawing that - like, Katie's notebook is animated at times, and some of her thoughts about things also get animated onto the screen in really interesting and visually beautiful ways as well. You know, when she goes through a heartbreak moment and a little heart appears as a drawing and then, like, shatters next to her.

It also used, like, photos and repurposed them into the animation because then it kind of, like, blends our world and the Mitchells' world, in a really funny way. I think one of the biggest laughs that I got out of the movie was when Mom and Dad are sort of arguing, like, we've never been able to take a good family photo. And they look through different ones, and then finally, Rick points out, that family looks perfectly happy, and it's the family stock photo that you would find at any department store ever. And Maya Rudolph's character points out, like, that's not even our family. Just - it was just a beautiful quick visual gag, and then, like, the next second, they move on to the next thing. I loved it so much.

HOLMES: Yeah, I had great fun with this movie. And I have to say, like, as much as I miss seeing movies in theaters, there's part of me that thinks, for a film like this that I think would work for a lot of people and a lot of people's families to drop on a Friday and just be something that - you know, I can imagine worse release schedules for something like this.

We want to know what you think about "The Mitchells Versus The Machines." Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh or tweet us at @PCHH. When we come back, it's going to be time to talk about what's making us happy this week, so come right back.

Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. It's time for our favorite segment of this week and, let's face it, every week. What's making us happy this week? Monica, what's making you happy this week?

CASTILLO: I keep going through boom-bust cycles on reading during the pandemic. I'll go through a bunch of pages, and then I'll completely forget the book is right there on my nightstand. So I've decided to choose "How To Leave Hialeah" by Jennine Capo Crucet. It's a short story collection, so even if I do get a couple pages in, I've at least completed the short story, and then a new one begins anew. And it's been a perfect way to kind of get back into reading after, you know, stopping for a time.

And it's just so interesting, too. I'm only a few stories in. The second one was so striking to me in the way that it describes, like, a tragedy, but also how the family fallout takes place. I was super riveted. The whole rest of the book could have been about this fallout, and I would have probably followed it. Yeah, I'm really enjoying my time reading "How To Leave Hialeah."

HOLMES: Thank you very much, Monica. Mallory, what is making you happy this week?

YU: So what's making me happy this week is a manga called "Drops Of God." It was created and written by Tadashi Agi, which is a pseudonym of a brother and sister duo. It's about a lowly peon named Shizuku Kanzaki, who works at Taiyo Beer Corporation. The thing is, he is the son of a famed wine critic, Yutaka Kanzaki, and he's rebelling against his father by working in beer. When his dad dies, he leaves behind his wine collection, worth billions of yen, and tells Shizuku through his will that in order for Shizuku to receive this inheritance, he has to compete in a battle of wine. So his father has described 13 wines that he believes are the best wines and vintages in the world, so these are 12 Apostles and one Drops of God. And Shizuku not only has to guess what the wines are based on his father's descriptions of them - he has to beat out his dad's adopted son and wine protege, Issei Toomine, who is also a famous wine critic in his own right.

So the tone is that of a, like, shonen manga. It's, like, every single character has this pure, manic passion for exactly one thing. In other manga, it's volleyball or baseball or becoming the next Hokage or whatever. In "Drops Of God," it's wine, and everyone treats wine with such earnestness that you can't help but be sucked in. I'm not saying that this manga is the Drops of God of manga. It's more like the cheap but compulsively drinkable wine that you break out for, like, casual parties on your porch.

There are 33 translated volumes currently available for free on Kindle, which is how I read them, with even more still to be translated. So if you're looking for something that you just want to binge-read, this is the perfect thing for it. And also, I now know a lot of wine lingo like terroir and minerality, vintages, Grand Cru. It's great. I'm obsessed, and I can't wait for more translations.

HOLMES: Amazing. Thank you so much, Mallory. Glen Weldon, what is making you happy this week, other than - I heard you give a little woo that that was Mallory's pick.

WELDON: Yeah, I heartily second that pick. That's a great pick. I listen to every episode of the podcast "Homophilia," in which friend of the show, the great and good Dave Holmes and Matt McConkey interview queer celebrities - or actually, there's not a lot of them, so more like queer media figures, maybe. I listen even if I have no idea who the hell the guest is, because Matt and Dave are charming, and they can wrest an interesting conversation even if the guest is not bringing their A-game.

As we tape this, the most recent episode - the guest is actor Charlie Carver. I didn't know much about this kid. He's hot. He's a twin. He was on "Teen Wolf." He was on "The Leftovers." He played Cowboy, the sex worker in the Netflix film, "The Boys In The Band."

And I'll just say it. This is not fair, but he's young. He's very symmetrical. I wasn't expecting much from this interview. And this kid has done some good thinking about things like identity and career and just being in the world. He just came off like someone who has his stuff together the way few people do at his age. I certainly didn't. So it gave me hope for the future, which is in short supply. So a general recommendation for "Homophilia," but the Charlie Carver episode in particular.

HOLMES: Thank you very much, Glen Weldon. What is making me happy this week - I'm a little biased, but I was thrilled and delighted to read an oral history of the crying Dawson GIF over at Vox from Constance Grady, who was kind enough to write about the moment in May of 2000 when on "Dawson's Creek," Dawson suffered a heartbreak that he deserved and wept theatrically on a dock.

There are people who believe that the oral history economy has gotten a little out of hand, and I tend to be one of those people. This is what I think oral histories are really good for because it takes a bunch of different people's perspectives, and rather than just pasting them together to tell a story without having to do the work of crafting a story, it lays their perspectives next to each other in a way that really does help you understand what was going on at this moment in television.

The reason why I say I am biased is that they talk quite a bit here with Sarah Bunting and Tara Ariano, who were the editorial directors of Television Without Pity, which I worked at at the time. Sarah and Tara talk a lot about kind of what reaction to television was about at that time and how it was working, not just culturally but technically - like, the technical process of how a GIF of that moment first made it to their forums.

Also, they talked to "Dawson's Creek" writers, and you see how what appeared to be happening in that moment on that show was so different, depending on whether you were trying to make it or trying to watch it (laughter). And it was - to me, I think it's just a great piece. I think it gives Sarah and Tara their due credit as really pioneers in the art of television criticism and writing. I loved, loved, loved reading this. Again, it's called "The Day Dawson Cried: An Oral History Of The Dawson Crying GIF And Its Outsized Legacy," and it was written by Constance Grady for Vox. Appreciated it, and it made me very happy this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLMES: That brings us to the end of our show. Before we go, just another reminder that you can help us build the future of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR over at npr.org/springsurvey. I can honestly tell you, we still talk about things we've learned from research like this when we plan what's next. Whether you are brand new to the show or you've been with us since we were talking about, you know, "Inception" and "Wipeout" back in 2010, it matters to us what you think. So head over to npr.org/springsurvey and give us your thoughts.

You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me at @lindaholmes. You can find Glen at @ghweldon, and you can find Monica at @mcastimovies. Our editor Jessica Reedy is at @jessica_reedy. Our producer Candice Lim is at @thecandicelim. You can follow producer and sometime panelist Mallory Yu at @mallory_yu and Mike Katzif at @mikekatzif, K-A-T-Z-I-F. Mike Katzif's band, HelloComeIn, provides the music you're bobbing your head to right now.

Thanks to you, Monica, for being with us.

CASTILLO: Thanks for having me again.

HOLMES: Thanks to you as well, Mallory and Glen.

YU: Always great to be here.

WELDON: Thank you.

HOLMES: Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all right back here next week when we will be talking about Netflix's "Selena: The Series."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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