I’m worried Netflix is starting to create a collection of shallow and disappointing animated films. It’s probably unfair to criticize Netflix for that since shallow animations have been around for decades, but they’ve also never looked this good. After watching The Mitchells vs. the Machines I was immediately reminded of watching The Willoughbys which I found to be a glossy, but empty animation.
The difference with The Mitchells vs. the Machines is it’s made by Sony Pictures Animation, a company I thought had a better track record. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Arthur Christmas seem to be their best. When you recognize Sony Pictures Animation has also made three Smurf movies, three Hotel Transylvania‘s, and The Emoji Movie things start to make more sense, especially when noting the latter.
The Mitchells vs The Machines is algorithmic cinema. I started thinking of the Indiewire article I read about McG and his success at Netflix being due to his understanding of the algorithm and youth culture. With Sony’s animated film, they’re being algorithmic, but in the way that they are trying to be as universal as possible. Directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe end up pandering to the audience, fabricating emotions that feel dishonest. It’s another film trying to mimic the Pixar formula without any heart and a vague understanding of how it works.
The characters are one-dimensional, with the exception being Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson), but even she’s a thin construction. They’re all defined by one thing: Katie wants to be a filmmaker, Linda is the supportive mom, Rick is the macho dad, and Aaron is the hyperactive younger brother. The Mitchells are essentially the Parr family from the The Incredibles, but minus one kid and superpowers. The audience can easily try to put themselves into one of these characters because odds are they have something in common with at least one of them at a surface level.
The Mitchells vs the Machines is a perfect example of movies that think they need to add social media and then overdo it. The only thing more exhausting than social media is watching a film that incorporates it so much with no deep commentary on it. I watch films to escape social media. Popular cinema is doomed if studios and directors think social media has to have such a heavy presence in films to get people to like them.
It is no surprise that a movie that features social media so heavily has one-dimensional characters. Each singular trait is each character’s “brand” that they would have on social media. Katie would be creating high-energy Tik Toks, Rick would be doing woodworking, Linda would be doing lifestyle, and Aaron’s account would be all about dinosaurs.
We’ve reached the point where mainstream cinema that isn’t appealing strictly to Gen-Z and below is using emojis, memes, and other internet lore unironically. This is another example of its pandering nature, suggesting that young people will only like movies and television shows unless it’s continually showing you frenetic editing, explosions, etc.
In this case, The Mitchells vs The Machines is giving the audience what they can find on their phones so they don’t divert their attention from the movie. The irony is the movie gives a critique of social media and Internet culture, but takes a soft stance and doesn’t say anything new or compelling. Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe don’t seem to realize their film is the epitome of what it’s criticizing, embodying the influencer who one day tweets that social media is toxic and they’re distancing themselves from it, only to come back two days later to do it all over again.