A new family film from Sony Pictures Animation arriving on Netflix, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is a hoot. An antic tale of a suburban clan staving off the robot apocalypse, it’s fast enough for the kids and smart enough for the grown-ups, and if the little ones are really paying attention, it may inculcate them with a healthy distrust of modern technology and the giant corporations that control our screens. (While they’re watching a movie produced by giant corporations that control our screens, but never mind.)
Drawn in a CGI version of the hand-drawn, agreeably blotchy animation style of “Gravity Falls,” the Disney TV series on which writer-directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe previously worked, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” starts with Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson of “Broad City”) off to art school, where she can take her home-made filmmaking skills to the next level. Her father, Rick (Danny McBride), a big, bluff goofball, has lost the knack of talking to his daughter; trying for one last shot at communication, he packs everyone in the family wagon for a cross-country trip to college. Mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) and dinosaur-crazed little brother Aaron (Rianda) are game, but father and daughter can’t agree on anything.
Lucky for them the hipster tech entrepreneur Mark Bowman — comedian Eric André voices him like the lost love-child of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk — has introduced his new line of robotic AI personal assistants. “I know what you’re thinking — are they going to turn evil?,” Bowman asks at the product reveal, and it’s a rhetorical question until Pal, the company’s flagship smartphone software, gets jealous and reprograms the robots to enslave all humans. Pal is voiced by the Oscar-winning actress Olivia Colman in a magnificently funny performance that suggests Alexa or Siri having a diva fit. Since Pal is connected to all the “smart” devices on the planet, this turns out to be everyone’s problem.
“The Mitchells vs. the Machines” conspires to have the fractious title clan be the only people on Earth not captured by the robots, so it’s up to them to save the day. For help, they have only their wits, a pair of brain-damaged ‘bots played by Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett, and a pet pug named Monchi who mostly just lies there. (Monchi does have a secret-weapon utility which I will not share.) The movie is zippy, inventive, and appreciably silly — it tosses believability aside and asks us to just hop in and hold on. The producers include Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the inspired duo behind “The Lego Movie” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse,” and “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” has the same breakneck gift for comic timing and a willingness to throw anything at the screen if it’ll get a laugh, including an angry Furby the size of an office tower. Pixar’s output remains the family animation standard, but a movie like “Soul” looks slightly doughy next to this.
There’s a moral at the end (love your family in all its weirdness, or something) and a dollop of sentiment that is contractually required for the genre. But it’s the discreetly sharpened edges of “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” that stick with you — Linda’s jealousy toward her bland, Instagram-perfect neighbors (voiced by John Legend and Chrissy Teigen; oh, the irony) and the jaundiced eye the filmmakers cast toward the machines that make this movie and everything else in our shiny modern lives possible. “Who would think a tech company wouldn’t have our best interests at heart?,” Linda wonders at one point. The sooner your kids learn that, the better.
THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES
Directed by Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe. Featuring the voices of Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Eric André, Olivia Colman. Available on Netflix. 114 minutes. PG (action and some language)