The Mitchells vs the Machines: A Good Movie, But is it Oscar Worthy?
The Mitchells vs the Machines raises the bar for quality animation but how does its story (and queer representation) stack up against fellow Oscar nominee Encanto?
Warning: The following contains spoilers for the entirety of The Mitchells vs the Machines. Read at your own risk.
“We all want to be the perfect family. But who’s perfect, right? Every family has its challenges. From picture day, to picky eaters. For my family, our greatest challenge? Probably the machine apocalypse.”
If nothing else, The Mitchells vs the Machines can lay claim to one of if not the best opening lines in the history of cinema. I mean talk about an audience hook! Citizen Kane could never.
The Mitchells vs the Machines also has one of the best pedigrees in cinema, coming as it does from the people who brought us Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Even without seeing the movie you know it’s no surprise that it got nominated for a Best Animated Feature Film Oscar since this is an animation studio which not only does the work but raises the bar on what doing the work is.
But, when it’s up against a Disney powerhouse like Encanto, does it deserve to win?
My quick review of The Mitchells vs the Machines is that it is a good movie. Three stars, aka “If this is the sort of thing you like then you’ll like this sort of thing.” Where, in this case, “this sort of thing” means animated movies, movies about families, and/or movies about fathers and daughters. If you’re looking for any sort of movie like that, put this one in your queue. You won’t regret it.
Is it, however, a movie that is a must watch by everyone in the world regardless of what types of movies they like?
Look, I cannot stress enough that I’m grading this movie on a much harder curve than I’d grade any other film. This is arguably deeply unfair of me since it could be said I’m penalizing them for not doing god tier level work in every movie they make. And to some extent, yes, when I see a piece of media which clearly doesn’t even have a bare minimum interest in doing the work I’m not going to waste time talking about how they failed to solve theoretical physics when they’re still at the stage where not smearing poop on the wall is a big accomplishment.
But at the same time this is precisely why I love Roger Ebert’s rating system of “is it for people who like this sort of thing” vs “is it for everyone?” One isn’t better than the other, they’re just different. (And I swear I’m still trying to come up with a pithier way to refer to this in my own reviews, honest! Suggestions welcome! Please!)
So on the one hand The Mitchells vs the Machines is a perfectly good three star film, there is nothing wrong with that, it did wonderfully. But on the other hand when this is the studio that gave us Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse you cannot help but give wistful sighs over how much better this movie could’ve been with just a few changes.
Let’s talk more about that.
The Good Parts of The Mitchells vs the Machines
You can’t talk about this movie and specifically the good of this movie without talking about the animation. Once again the studio decided to invent all new technology in order to achieve the look that they wanted to best convey the story they were trying to tell.
This is one of the things I absolutely love about this team. Though it’s by no means required for every animated movie to push the boundaries of what the format can do, the fact that this level of thought and effort is considered an intrinsic part of their process and that, to me, is what generally tips the scales in their favor when it comes to giving awards of any kind to a Best Animated Feature. With Spider-Verse they didn’t just tell a good story, they reinvented how to tell a story and that’s freaking amazing.
As you watch the movie you can see how this wasn’t inventing things for the sake of inventing them. It’s not in your face but details like the way the pattern on Rick’s shirt looks like hand drawn scribbles are a nice touch. And I’m sure each and every one of Katie’s doodles is a feast of details and information for anyone who can freeze frame fast enough to catch them all. You can tell the people working on this film put a lot of love into it.
Another thing that works well is that the story is allowed to have layers. The main thrust, that of the relationship between Katie and Rick, her father, is one in which there is no right answer. It respects that both Katie and Rick are their own people with their own wants, needs, and responsibilities for how their relationship has grown apart. I also liked that the resolution of the story involved the two of them accepting each other as they are now, including how Katie is no longer a little child. (Though there was one part which could’ve been done a little better but I’ll get to that in a bit.)
The humor of the movie is great. The comedic timing of certain bits (one word: Roombas) and the carefully balanced absurdity of others (another word: Furbies) was top notch. Credit here goes to writing and animation both because you can put something in the script about Pal flopping “very stupidly” on a table but without the visual setup of how politely and smoothly the robot places her on the table and then puts her back the joke wouldn’t land nearly as well. There’s additional deft touches on seemingly throw away lines like “Take that, Kentwood Community Facebook Group!” and the reference to Mark’s $1000 hoodie. (I assume his flip flops were at the cleaners.)
I also liked how there were certain aspects of the story which weren’t cliché. For example the close relationship Katie had with her brother Aaron was great to see. As a little sibling myself, I know all too well how often the youngest members of the family are presented as annoying tag alongs who only hold their cooler older siblings back. Instead here Katie and Aaron were supportive and loving to one another and at no point did the movie challenge that.
And, of course, there’s the part where by the end of the movie it’s revealed that Katie has a girlfriend. But I’ll talk more about that in a bit.
I realize I’m coming off here not saying much but that’s because as a concept the movie delivers a solid film. It’s a good film but, other than the animation, not a great film or at the very least not as great as it could have been. And one of the aspects of being good but not great is that there isn’t as much to talk about.
We can spend an entire article talking about just a few minutes out of an entire movie when even one tiny detail in those few minutes connects to hundreds of others which in turn connect to hundreds more. The Mitchells vs the Machines doesn’t do that. I mean it does in some places, most especially in the crafting of the animation. But in terms of things like music choices, costuming, or dialogue it doesn’t hit as hard. it’s still a much, much better film than most, but it’s not the greatest ever.
So let’s get into why.
The Not So Good Parts of The Mitchells vs the Machines
Again, I cannot stress enough that I’m grading this movie harder because I know this studio can do amazing work and it’s disappointing that in this case they didn’t do as good as they could have. I recognize that many places, including Disney at times, don’t turn in projects even half as good as this one. But like I say, when I know they can do the work and in this case they fell short of their potential, well it stands out and it’s unfortunate.
One of the things which stood out is that for every clever joke there was another that was disappointingly low hanging fruit. The movie could’ve had good commentary on the dichotomy of how technology allows us to do things like stay connected with loved ones who live far away (which ties directly into the theme of the story of Katie going to college) vs the amount of privacy we give up in order to have that. And while the movie does touch on that, very briefly, it also goes for a woman (of course) crying and begging people to take pictures of her food. Get it? Because shallow people post food pictures to Instagram? Get it??
There were also things which stood out in their lack of attention to detail. For example, though Linda has some great lines and moments (her saying that, as a first grade teacher, dealing with the apocalypse is a normal day for her was a particular favorite of mine) in the end it stands out that Linda is a cypher compared to the rest of her family. Yes, we can say things about her like she loves and supports her family and will do anything to protect them. But who is Linda as a person?
Put it this way with a pop quiz: Aaron loves dinosaurs. Rick loves the outdoors. Katie loves movies. What does Linda love?
In one aspect this weakness of the writing highlights a strength of the animation team because the decorations in the house, including the multiple plaques with sayings on the wall, gives at least an impression of Linda as a human being outside of the person who constantly makes “Go on, honey!” faces at everyone else. And I get that the crux of the story was the relationship between Rick and Katie. But still, we get the flashback about Rick and Linda’s first house and it’s entirely about Rick’s goals, wants for the house, and feelings? Linda had no thoughts of her own on the subject?
I know the writers of the movie, Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, credit the whole team with contributing thoughts and ideas to the story but at the same time I can’t help but feel that things like the lack of Linda’s inner life exposes how Mike and Jeff maybe didn’t realize how much their personal life experience as men of a certain age was affecting the narrative.
Another case in point, and I’m going to apologize in advance for how this is going to make all of you reach for a certain Jaime Lee Curtis gif, but guys? At 40 years old Rick is a millennial. He grew up with the internet and social media and, yes, posting pictures of his food online! I’m not saying he has to be a technology expert, I’ve certainly met plenty of people younger than I am who know less about technology than I do. But the idea that he would be all “What are these cell phones of which you speak? I hate them, grrr!” about it is hugely anachronistic and, frankly, gives away that the people responsible for the story were thinking about their parents (aka people likely to be of the Boomer generation) and not Katie’s parents.
(Another bit which gives this away is when Katie references Ghostbusters and you know the movie means the original and not the 2016 version which Katie, particularly as someone who is into girls, would’ve been more likely to appreciate.)
And what gets me is that this could’ve worked for the movie! Like Rick being a millennial who doesn’t care for technology could’ve been his “weird” quirk that ultimately helps him bond with Katie. But in the end, much like Linda’s lack of an inner life, it feels more like Rick and Linda were created as parental stereotypes than characters built with any deep level of thought (Dads sure do hate technology and expressing their feelings and moms only ever bake cupcakes and say supportive things to the rest of the family, am I right?).
Which again I would not hold against most movies but when one of the things The Mitchells vs the Machines team brags about is how they deliberately “threw out every formula” I’m gonna call them on the fact that, whelp, no they didn’t.
Likewise it’s not throwing out every formula when the classic third act emotional crisis is that, yup, Rick hears about Katie’s earlier lie and takes it to heart instead of realizing that Katie’s feelings might have changed since then. I mean again: it’s fine. It’s a tried and true story beat. But also again: it’s a tried and true story beat. So much so I was able to predict it well before it happened. Contrast it with how the third act emotional crisis in Encanto is Mirabel both having the realization and the inner strength to speak truth to Abuela Alma and even yell at her about how Alma is the one tearing their family apart. Mirabel’s is an earned moment which is based on character growth and moving forward. The Mitchells’ is a cliché based on artificially shoving their development backwards. A perfectly fine cliché but that’s yet another reason why it’s a good movie and not a great one.
Finally, let’s talk about representation.
Katie Mitchell As Queer Representation
I cannot stress enough that it is huge that there is currently an Oscar nominated animated movie which stars a queer protagonist who is the hero of the film. I would’ve killed for a movie like this as a kid.
Buuuuuuuuuut you know there’s a “but” coming.
Here’s the thing: it’s not nothing that Katie is queer (and I’m saying queer because all we know is that she might be dating a girl at the end of the movie, we don’t know that she only likes girls.) The fact that Katie exists is queer rep. But honestly she’s not great queer rep.
Because here’s the thing: if you cut out the line at the end of the movie where Linda asks if Jade is coming over for Thanksgiving, you have no signs that Katie is queer. Yeah she wears a rainbow pin but that could just as easily mean ally. And, frankly, with the stylistic choices of the art, it’s not always obvious that her pin is rainbow colored. There were times when I thought maybe it was even a pansexual pin which would’ve been totally fine representation as well but point being you can see how the pin wasn’t a slam dunk for identifying where Katie, well, identified.
Now I’m not saying everything Katie did had to be entirely about her being queer. There’s progress in having stories about queer characters where them being queer is not the only aspect of their personality, and to that end Katie is great. But at the same time, and much though the team said that they relied on LGBTQIA+ members to help make Katie feel authentic... she doesn’t feel authentic.
You have a story about how Katie feels like the odd person out and especially in her relationship with her father and her sexuality is no part of that? Not even obliquely? Or are we supposed to believe that Rick can’t even handle that Katie enjoys making movies yet her being queer is something he’s the perfect father on? Especially when Rick seems like the type of dad who wouldn’t be able to handle the realization that Katie is old enough to date at all, let alone what gender of person she’s currently seeing?
The movie does well in a line like “I’ve always felt a little... different than everyone else.” where that’s open ended enough that it can cover everything about Katie’s life from film to fashion choices to who she wants to date. We needed more of that. Again, I’m not saying she had to be wearing a “I like my men like I like my women” t-shirt and trying to bond with Rick over the best way to eat out, but there should’ve been more hints about Katie’s sexuality factoring into the awkwardness in some way. Even if it was just to show her trying to mention how interesting she found Jade specifically only for Rick to ignore or talk over her! It doesn’t have to be that Rick is homophobic or anything. Just, much like Linda’s lack of an inner life, Katie lacks the signs of someone who is queer as a person rather than as a single line of dialogue.
I mean put it this way: the movie spends more screentime on Aaron’s crush and starting romance with the girl next door than it does on Katie’s with Jade and Aaron is nine freaking years old! Also he’s not the protagonist! Also who gives a shit if he’s got a crush on that girl? Aaron’s c-plot was the idea of him being lonely and without a friend to talk about dinosaurs with once Katie was gone. He could’ve just made a new friend! Again since he’s NINE!
(Likewise another moment of Katie not feeling like a fully realized queer character? When she specifically needles Aaron about finding a “lady nerd.” As a queer person herself Katie would’ve been far more likely not to assume Aaron was straight or, at the very least, to be supportive of the idea that when/if he is ready to think about romance it could be with any gender.)
A lack of baking Katie’s sexuality into her character also creates a lost opportunity when it comes to her relationship with Rick. I abhor using the word “coded” when it’s not appropriate but in many ways Rick is certainly implied to be conservative. I’m not saying he’s a full on red hat wearing anti-vaxxer. But as someone who loves to hunt (and who I assume only uses bows and arrows due to movie rating restrictions on showing guns in a children’s movie), is a survivalist prepper (per the description of him in the script), and who is presented as old fashioned, Rick can easily come across as the kind of moderate conservative who, again, wouldn’t necessarily be hanging out on a QAnon board but at the same time who you could see making an offhand comment at the dinner table about well why do people even need to buy a cake from somebody who doesn’t want to bake them one anyway, honey?
To be clear, I’m not saying the movie had to do this or that it’s a mark against the movie that it didn’t. I’m just saying that if we’re talking about doing the work one way of doing that is adding layers to what is otherwise a simple story and thus one way of doing that is making Katie’s sexuality more a part of her character (which they should’ve done anyway) as well as telling a story about a queer kid with a conservative parent who manages to find a way to love and connect with her anyway.
So yeah. Katie’s not as bad in the list of queer rep as a Russo is, but at the same time she could’ve been a lot better and the lack of better represents missed opportunity for how the story could’ve been elevated out of cliche as well.
Does The Mitchells vs the Machines Deserve an Oscar?
This one will be short: in my opinion no. But only because it’s up against Encanto, which, other than how it didn’t push the boundaries of how to tell a story via animation, did the work on a god tier level in every other aspect down to the molecules of that movie. I’ve rewatched Encanto god knows how many times now and I’m still noticing new details. The Mitchells vs the Machines? I’d probably pick up on some stuff, especially with Katie’s drawings, but it’s not giving me the same vibes as Spider-Verse did.
Good movie, not great. I won’t be mad if it wins the Oscar and if Encanto wasn’t in the running it would absolutely deserve the win without question. But Encanto’s there so as far as I’m concerned it’s no contest.
Still a good movie though! You should definitely watch if you’re looking for a fun couple of hours. There are certainly worse ways to spend your time.
As always, things that didn’t fit anywhere else:
- While I appreciate using Katie’s POV, complete with her doodles, allowed for a new way to tell the story in the end I don’t think they managed to sitck the dismount. For starters, the doodles were often more distracting than enhancing in a scene. Also, per the script, the doodles are supposed to encourage the impression that we’re watching this movie as though Katie made it. Which is a great idea which is immediately thrown out the window when we see any scenes which Katie wasn’t there for, such as any scene of Pal talking to the robots in Silicon Valley before the Mitchells show up. I think a movie told from the POV of the filmmaking protagonist is a great idea. I just also think this movie didn’t succeed in being that.
- Other things that didn’t stick the dismount: The symbolism of Katie keeping the moose at the end. The moose was something Rick gave her to help her when she was a child, and the early scenes of the movie rightfully show that as a college aged student she’s grown beyond that. Her keeping the moose therefore symbolizes a happy resolution from part of her still being that child, instead of the acknowledgement that she’s in a new stage of her life and she and Rick can only go forward, not back. A better way of handling it would’ve been for her to give the moose back to Rick along with the same speech about how the moose was scared to be alone. It would’ve shown both how Katie was taking something of Rick’s with her - the lesson he gave her - while also acknowledging that at this moment it was Rick who was scared of this next stage of life and that growth for the both of them was in realizing Katie is now old enough to support Rick the way he supported her.
- The movie making cutting off WiFi a notable scene early on really undercuts the drama of the mall scene when you’re sitting there wondering why Pal didn’t cut off the WiFi there too.
- One thing we do know about Linda, thanks to the bumper stickers on the car, is that she’s a proud member of her teacher’s union. Somebody tell Jorts.
- Another sign this movie was written by people talking about their childhood and not Gen Z's: Where the hell did Aaron get a phonebook from in the first place and who the hell are all these people answering a strange number when he calls them?
- There’s a great anatomy of a scene showing the amazing amount of work put into the moment of Rick watching the home movies. I wish the rest of the movie had stayed on this level.
- If you want to read it, the script is available here for free.
And that’s all I’ve got! Tune in next time when I hope to get at least one more Oscar nominated movie in the analysis can before the awards happen! Or maybe life will happen to me again and best laid plans will gang aft a-gley all over the place. Insert your own joke here about how either way there will be drama!
Thanks for reading!
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