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a family cramped into a tiny car Image: Netflix

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The Mitchells vs. the Machines is hilarious, beautiful chaos

The new Netflix movie gets the internet generation right

Everything about The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Netflix’s new animated comedy from director Mike Rianda (Gravity Falls) and producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie), is absolute pandemonium — in the best way possible. The story of a highly dysfunctional family’s road trip vacation, and a poorly timed machine uprising, beams with bright, electric visuals. But through hand-scribbled flourishes and zany robot fights, Rianda finds heart, humor, and a family message that isn’t super cheesy. In fact, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is one of the sharpest movies about technology and the online generation out there.

The Mitchells vs. the Machines starts with a deceptively simple setup: Katie (Abbi Jacobson), a tech-savvy young filmmaker, is fed up with her old-fashioned father, Rick (Danny McBride), who just doesn’t “get” her. A fight on her last night at home before college prompts Rick to drag the whole family on a cross-country road trip so they can all drop Katie off. Just when things couldn’t get anymore tense, an evil AI named PAL (Olivia Colman) launches a Skynet-like apocalypse. Robots capture almost every human on the planet, except for the Mitchell family. Katie, her dad, her mom Linda (Maya Rudolph), and her brother Aaron (Rianda himself) struggle to survive killer machines and themselves.

Much like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, also produced by Lord and Miller, The Mitchells vs. the Machines embraces stylization over photorealism, mirroring the sketches and doodles of Katie’s notebook. The character designs and backgrounds are exaggerated in classic cartoon fashion, and the animation team further augments the picture with scribbled hearts, bold letters, scribbled swirls, and little effects akin to Snapchat or TikTok filters. In a movie dominated by PAL and its legion of robots, Rianda’s visual approach reflects on how tech shapes Katie and Aaron’s experiences. Every frame vibrates with extra elements as a way of translating how someone Katie’s age sees the world. It’s the internet generation brought to life.

the mitchells screaming in a car, with doodled words around them Image: Netflix

While PAL’s robots are a real threat, rounding up humans into pods to eventually launch into the empty vacuum of space, the conflict of The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a fractured relationship between Katie and Rick. There’s more nuance here than a totally out-of-touch father and an unjustifiably rebellious teenage daughter; each of them needs to work to see the other’s point of view. That journey to get on the same wavelength is drawn seamlessly into the greater battle to defeat the machines. An impromptu stick-shift lesson from Rick ultimately comes in handy for Katie, while his daughter’s imagined, action-movie-informed schemes turn into life-saving plans. Whenever Rianda veers too close to sentimental territory, a gag balances everything out. Katie’s big speech toward the end of the movie is touching, but it also sends PAL right into sleep mode.

The Mitchells vs. the Machines is genuinely heartwarming because it’s also hilarious. Banter between the Mitchells over dinosaurs and dog kisses is sharp and funny, while examples of their less-than-perfect family outings — like Rick accidentally getting caught in his makeshift backyard trap — give animators a chance to inject visual humor. The robot rebellion offers its own spectacle; at one point, the family gets trapped in a shopping mall and a mob of smart appliances swarm them, ranging from a horde of angry blenders to a giant, bloodthirsty Furby. And while a movie about the Online Experience is bound to have a few in-jokes (the Nyan Cat song can be heard as the soundtrack for one of Katie’s videos), Rianda rightfully centers the humor away from current meme hallmarks to commentary on the ways we use the internet.

katie leading rick down the street Image: Netflix

The tricky thing about making an online-focused movie is that what’s trendy right now won’t be in a few weeks (remember… sea shanties?). Without the burden of specificity, The Mitchells vs. the Machines can unload jokes instead of a hot pot of dated references. The little online-specific things — like a nod to “Numa Numa” — are scant and feel more like Easter Eggs, allowing Rianda and the creative team to explore the generational divide of tech more than skewer it for cheap laughs. The way Katie and her brother Aaron use their phones and apps is universal enough to not warrant eyerolls from younger audiences, but at the same time, vague enough that older adults who struggle with differentiating TikTok from Vine from YouTube won’t feel alienated.

From the zany visuals to the wild plot and its genuinely sweet observations on family, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, originally set for a theatrical release by Sony before settling on Netflix, is a joy in every way. It’s a movie that commands attention, with everything going on across the screen and in the script. The action plot augments the family conflict and vice versa, with every moment of the story pushing those plots forward. It’s an utter delight from start to finish that brings the best of animation and the internet to life.

The Mitchells vs. the Machines is available to stream on Netflix.