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Review: Hit the road with ‘The Mitchells vs. the Machines,’ an agreeable Netflix family distraction

Maya Rudolph, Abbi Jacobson, Doug the Pug, Mike Rianda and Danny McBride in "The Mitchells vs. the Machines."
The Mitchell family as voiced by Maya Rudolph, Abbi Jacobson, Doug the Pug, Mike Rianda and Danny McBride in “The Mitchells vs. the Machines.”
(Netflix)

Ever since the slapstick “Vacation” franchise of the ‘80s, the dysfunctional family road trip has earned its place as a reliable Hollywood construct. At its best, it offers simple truths through easy laughs by pointing a mirror to our family’s familiar flaws. At its worst, in the case of flops like “RV” and “Johnson Family Vacation,” it relies on low-hanging humor — usually a hapless father thrown into ill-fated stunts — instead of locating real sincerity. The unwaveringly sweet, animated example “The Mitchells vs the Machines,” largely avoids the genre’s worst cliches for a tear-jerking adventure ripe with apocalyptic fun.

Produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’”) and directed by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” centers Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson), a quirky cinephile teenager with big dreams of moving to California. She lives with her ever-supportive mother Linda (Maya Rudolph), who bakes garish cupcakes with her daughter’s face on them. Katie’s little brother Aaron, a dinosaur fanatic and the person she’s closest to in her suburban household, shares raptor claw fist bumps with her.

But Katie, a punk-listening, red-headed aspiring filmmaker, doesn’t quite feel at home anymore with her outdoorsy father. Rick (Danny McBride) is the kind of well-intentioned dad who gives his family a “number 3 Robertson-head non-slip screwdriver” for birthdays and anniversaries and finds greater joy in building, fixing and hunting stuff rather than his daughter’s artsy projects. It’s not for lack of trying; Rick is too big-hearted to knowingly stomp on her ambitions. But whenever he sees Katie’s eccentric student films — one features the kids’ bug-eyed pup Monchi (is he a dog, a pig or a loaf of bread?) as Cop-dog — Rick fears she’ll fail in her creative career. Their long-established friction leads to plenty of slammed doors and hurt feelings and leaves Rick sitting alone in the dark watching old home movies, wondering where it went wrong.

“The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is wonderfully boundless when exploring Katie and Rick’s fraught father-daughter dynamic. In a desperate bid to rekindle their relationship, the clumsy father cancels Katie’s plane ticket to college and embarks with the family on a cross-country road trip to her school. Rianda and Rowe score huge, rapid-fire laughs charting the Mitchells’ doomed journey: the dysfunctional collective gets food poisoning at a shady diner, visits a low-rent dinosaur theme park and squanders every chance at a heartwarming group picture with their penchant for silly arguments. Along the way, Katie and Rick try to reconnect but discover just how far they’ve drifted apart. His sullen expression as he remembers the time his imaginative daughter looked to him as the fixer-dad is the kind of gut punch that lands with blockbuster intensity.

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At nearly two hours, however, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” loses its well-earned momentum when the filmmakers flex technophobic tropes into the adventurous escapade. Lurking in the background is Mark Bowman’s (Eric Andre) Silicon Valley company, “PAL.” A monopolistic computer empire akin to Apple, it is the world’s leading supplier of smartphones. Rick’s adherence to a neo-Luddism philosophy influences his desire that his family put away their screens. He believes our eyes are nature’s reality and devices subtract us from each other’s company. We’ve seen this soapbox before. The filmmakers do little to advance such fatigued arguments.

Likewise, the film’s robot apocalypse garners minimal laughs. Plenty of sci-fi movies have tried to quantify the eerie quality of iconoclastic tech giants like the young, hip Bowman. They’ve often failed, however, to make them more than cautionary archetypes for our modern world or deliver an intriguing diagnosis for our addiction toward gadgets that reaches beyond the oversimplified message of “technology is bad.”

The Mitchells take on the machines in Netflix's "The Mitchells vs. the Machines."
(Sony Pictures Animation / Netflix)

When Bowman’s new streamlined A.I. servants betray him at the behest of PAL, his jilted A.I. smartphone (voiced by Olivia Colman), “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” suffers from the same uncomplicated interpretation of technological subjugation. The shallow concept lends predictability to the robots’ scheme to launch the human race into space in the hopes of creating a utopian bot civilization and makes PAL a terribly dull villain.

Thankfully, the mix of 2D and 3D animation injects lively hysterical swings into the humdrum messaging. Dazzling cartoon effects — Katie’s hand-drawn storyboarded plans and notebook doodles, floating multi-color hearts and stylized letters spelling her screams and laughs — externalize inner emotions. She’s almost the film’s third director. Sometimes the kitschy visual language is too cute and overused, but when it’s punctuated by other jokes — demonic Furbies, Katie’s darkly humorous and explosive YouTube movies and her road-trip filming — the filmmakers score vibrant highs.

The zany quest also remains on track due to its equally bizarre characters: two defective droids, Eric (Beck Bennett) and Deborahbot 5000 (Fred Armisen) draw rudimentary facial expressions on their black visors and adopt Linda as their mother. The Mitchells’ high-achieving idyllic neighbors The Poseys further extract their amusing shortcomings. But the faltering father-daughter relationship is what registers strongest in the filmmaker’s earnest fable. As Katie and Rick head to Silicon Valley, hoping to spoil PAL’s dastardly plan by uploading a “kill code,” the pair realize the sacrifices and talents the other shares, and we can’t help but fall under the same spell of reconciliation. Adults without children will remember their teenage defiance against their moms and dads and parents will discover solace in knowing that this too shall pass.

Like our mothers and fathers, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” doesn’t always get it right — at one point the filmmakers jarringly use a cop’s story as a metaphorical entry point to rebond father and daughter — but the film always tries its best. With a colorful blend of biting absurdity and copious dad jokes to offset the commonplace narrative, Rianda and Rowe optimize their dysfunctional family road trip for high-functioning enjoyment.

'The Mitchells vs the Machines'

Rating: PG, for action and some language

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Playing: Netflix

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