Monday 11 April 2022

On demand: "The Mitchells vs. the Machines"

Disney all but had this year's Best Animated Feature Oscar in the bag with
Encanto: big, bright, a healthy tick in the representation box, but also a film with infernally catchy, much-streamed Lin-Manuel Miranda songs to keep it in voters' minds over an unusually elongated awards season. With The Mitchells vs. the Machines, their rivals at Sony Animation landed on the kind of wild card it's good for an industry to have in the mix. It has a similar idea to Disney's recent, enjoyable buy-in Ron's Gone Wrong - humanoids who have to stave off a rise of the machines - but as produced by The Lego Movie and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' Miller/Lord pairing, it's been encouraged to lean even further in the direction of goofiness. Writer-directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe also attempt something novel and affecting with their characters, particularly with the relationship between straitlaced father Rick (voiced by Danny McBride) and his aspirant filmmaker daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobsen), respectively representing a generation for whom technology has become second nature and one that's still struggling to make head or tail of it. Rianda and Rowe are supremely alert to the ways in which the personal and technological have meshed in recent decades, yet they grasp the possibilities of tech as a means of communication like any other: Katie's zappy, graphic-laden YouTube videos wind up instructing Rick on what his girl wants and needs from him. They're funny with it, too, showing up with pocketfuls of gags they scatter like sweets to a pantomime crowd.

The irony, of course, is that a film on the perils and pitfalls of tech should be so reliant on technology itself. From a very early stage, we're aware we're watching what only digimation can do; the film moves so fast, and crams so much appreciable detail into the back and sides of the frame that you soon long to study it at half-speed, or to rewatch it again from scratch. (I return to a line of thought stumbled upon during Pixar's early Noughties pomp, namely that digimation might be to traditional hand-drawn animation what screwball comedy was to the set-bound, often stage-derived drawing room comedies of the Twenties and early Thirties: an evolution and an acceleration.) Somehow this dizzying movement and colour (the palette's that of gas-station Slurpees; you want to force it on the makers of superhero movies) doesn't obscure a genuine personality. Rianda and Rowe generated all the necessary ones and zeroes, while understanding their real work lay in doodling over the top of them; their film has the layers you don't get in those cheap, dashed-off half-term screenfillers. 

The Mitchells prove to be the best defined animated family since the Parrs of The Incredibles, or - perhaps more realistically - the Belchers in TV's Bob's Burgers: the make-nice mom (another Linda, voiced by Maya Rudolph) with her heart-shaped earrings; the nervy younger brother (Rianda himself) who likes dinosaurs but nothing else, and is terrified by the thought of interacting with the opposite sex; the boss-eyed pug - a slobbery Minion - whom the very young will almost certainly want to adopt. There's also a terrific villain in Olivia Colman (she's in everything!), voicing a power-crazed Alexa (Malexa?) who uses her new-found sentience to get really, really sarcastic. If it's zippy and surfacey, for once that feels a choice designed to allow the film to cover a lot of ground and squeeze much more in: it is, at the very least, the only animation in existence to feature the music of Le Tigre and a Furby proclaiming "behold, the twilight of Man". With each new, Haribo-caffeinated project, Miller and Lord restate their goal of tossing tattered formulas and playbooks to the wind, and going off at 200mph in search of new ideas and possibilities. There's a sense of discovery, play and spontaneity about their work - and the work they've sponsored - which we're not currently seeing anywhere else in the multiplex; Hollywood would be a far healthier place were they to be appointed Kings of Everything.

The Mitchells vs. the Machines is now streaming on Netflix.

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