THE MITCHELLS vs THE MACHINES Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Alexander Wallace stops the car.
Of all the things of my childhood and early adolescence that I thought might be able to be mined by Hollywood, the YouTube Poops of the late 2000s was not one one of them. That’s the best point of comparison I have for The Mitchells vs. the Machines. It is brightly colored, scattershot, zany, filled to the brim with strange diversions, and under all the bewildering spectacle is something that appears benign but is actually deeply problematic.

The plot is a relatively simple one: you have Katie Mitchell (voiced with great energy by Abbi Jacobson), a new high school graduate who has been accepted to film school. However, her family is less supportive than they ought to have been; this leads to an awkward dinner before she leaves, leading to her father to cancel her plane ticket (!!!) and instead have the whole family drive her across the country. While this is going on, a tech company in Silicon Valley is debuting a line of personal assistant robots, leaving his original phone-based assistant, PAL, angry at being abandoned. PAL, knowing all of her creator’s tricks, decides that humanity is perfidious and unreliable and is better off shot into space. The end result is a strange potpourri of Mad Max, a Pixar film, and some visual humor reminiscent of Family Guy for lack of a better example.

Visually, this film looks not dissimilar from other projects that its producers, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have worked on, namely Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and The LEGO Movie. It has a certain sort of 3-D animation with a lot of contrasting blue and pink colorization. This is buttressed by the rather strange addition of comic-book style visual effects, cutaway gags a la Family Guy, and the occasional live-action clip. The whole thing comes off as feeling like a massive animated scrapbook, not unfitting for a road trip of this sort.

Musically, I cannot help but have noticed that the music feels at least a decade out of date. This is the sort of pop that was common when I was in middle school in the late 2000s, combined with rock that is perhaps more appealing to those of the age of the filmmakers than those that are Katie’s age (the film shows her born in 2003).

It is this rather strange approach to age that is the most jarring aspect of the film, and I speak from my own sordid upbringing to say that the Mitchells are almost the perfect abusive family. The film tries to frame this as generational miscommunication, but frankly it goes much deeper than that.
Take Rick Mitchell, voiced by Danny McBride. The film wants you to feel sorry for him as his relationship with his daughter deteriorates, but his issues with her are entirely of his own making. He spends a great deal of effort trying to resolve his own issues by restricting the freedom of his daughter. It’s clear he never really takes interest in her and her hobbies, preferring to see her through the lens of a time when she was a cute and bubbly child. Abusive parents often do this, as it is that early stage of life when the child is most obedient; he is at his most proud of her when she obeys him. In the year 2020 (making this film an inadvertent alternate history), he has no idea of the barest of basics of how computers or the internet work; instead he lives in a fantasy world that is essentially a pastiche of the world as it was in the 1980s (I would reckon he was born sometime in the mid to late 1970s). He cancels her plane ticket (without ever consulting her) and starts the road trip convinced that he can make things right. The entire plot of the movie kicks off with a rather infuriating action, and he comes off as deeply narcissistic. As Katie says, there’s no wonder at all why she’d want to leave.

Rick’s wife and Katie’s mother Linda Mitchell (Maya Rudolph) is more soft-spoken, but frankly just as bad as her husband. If Rick is the abuser, Linda is what is called in abuse survivor circles as the ‘enabler.’ If Rick is the iron fist, Linda is the velvet glove. She appears nice and soft-spoken and tries to reconcile abuser and abused (completely ignoring why the rift is there in the first place). She appears to support Katie at times, but when anything of substance happens she sides with Rick. She has to teach her husband the most basic of communication skills (you’d think that after eighteen years he would have cared to figure some of it out) to get everyone working together. She also is immensely vain, obsessed with social media and the image of a ‘perfect family’ (so far as to edit pictures to give off that impression), and intensely envious of neighbors to an unhealthy extent. She is the suburban mother at her most apathetic and hypocritical, and the abuse that her husband inflicts would not be half what it would be if not for her.
The children likewise show common dynamics of abusive families. Aaron Mitchell (Mike Rianda, also the film’s director) is what is referred to as the ‘golden child’ in abuse survivor circles. He gets away with so much more than what Katie can, and his parents bend over backwards to make him happy in a way that Katie never gets. They stop at a dinosaur-themed rest stop for him, and they pull over for an extended bathroom break for him. One subplot involves him interacting with a local girl he clearly has a crush on; however, he’s terrified of her to a point that he runs away from her twice. If the fear is that bad, there is clearly something deeply wrong at the Mitchell household.

And this brings us to Katie herself. She, like many abused children, became creative types out of a desire for a domain where she can be free of judgement and in control. She finds validation on the internet because she has none of it in her home. She also decides to go to a college on the literal opposite end of the country (no mean feat in the United States), explicitly to get away from her parents. The allegedly happy ending where differences are resolved felt more like the triumph of Stockholm Syndrome and internalized subservience from over a decade of being treated awfully. As someone who was in a similar position to her, it honestly breaks my heart.
The signs of abusive relationships are elsewhere, too. You have the pair of robots who ally with the Mitchells who function to validate the abusive situation in the way that friends of parents do in the real world. The robotic apocalypse starts because tech mogul Mark Bowman (Eric Andre) discards his technological ‘child’ PAL (Olivia Colman) without thinking. PAL, in my view, acts like the sort of angry abuse victim who becomes so paranoid as to become deeply misanthropic with deadly results. As the saying goes, ‘hurt people hurt people.’

This film certainly has its merits, particularly in its humor, but the utter dysfunction of the leading family just ruins it for me. This is a sterling example of how Hollywood just doesn’t get healthy family relationships. I’m going to make a bold claim, but one I stand by: this film is dangerous. This film will teach children in awful home environments that their suffering is normal. It is not. As such, I cannot in good conscience recommend it given how it may hurt real people (who are children!). Frankly, if this is what Mark Riada thought was a happy childhood, I truly feel sorry for him. Parents should be better than this. Hollywood should be better than this.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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