2021 had a lot of very good films. Villeneuve’s follow-up to the stunning Blade Runner 2049, Dune is a galactic film heading a new adventure I can’t wait to see the ending of. The Green Knight was an Arthurian tale of honor filled to the brim with dazzling images and a haunting score. CODA was impressively small, being authentic, personal, and universal all at the same time, and I have been championing it since I saw it in November (you can read why it deserves Best Picture here). And while I loved all these films, there was one film that stood head and shoulders above them all, and it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. That film was Netflix’s The Mitchells vs. The Machines. While Raya and the Last Dragon was the talk of the town during its release in late May and early June, The Mitchells vs. the Machines seemed to be another Netflix release that would be forgotten in a week with the newest drop of content. It came and went, and barely anyone noticed, like most February movies. To me, that is a major travesty because The Mitchells vs. The Machines isn’t just the best-animated film to come from last year. It’s the best film of 2021.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines centers on the worst thing in the world: a family road trip and a robot revolution. As Katie begins to form her own identity, her relationship with her family, specifically her dad, Rick, begins to slip. And when this dysfunctional family is all that is left to stop the robot revolution, the Mitchells will have to work through their differences to save the world.
It should come as no surprise that a film like The Mitchells vs. The Machines would set my heart aflame. It’s a coming-of-age drama about someone who loves movies and longs for approval from their family, which rings exceptionally close to home for me. But it’s not only in the broad strokes that I find The Mitchells vs. The Machines worthy of a Best Animated Picture prize. Because that same story is seen in the other major animated juggernaut of 2021, Encanto. here Encanto came to life through the music of one Lin Manuel Miranda, The Mitchells vs. The Machines comes to life through persistent character and creativity. Looking through the art book and behind the scenes of Mitchells is a feast for the eyes and heart, as the heart of the film is put front and center in every way. Take the character of Katie: not only is she a major film nerd, but someone questioning their identity and trying to find where they fit in with society. That story has been told a million times before, but here, the team of animators took it a step further by making Katie a queer individual. It’s something that on a plot level, is incredibly small. But on a personal level, it defines who Katie is, and is LGBTQ+ representation in a film genre that often gets none. That representation goes out of the way to make Katie’s queerness a real part of her character and not just a token aspect. By embracing “Katie Vision”, and her own quirky and energetic nature, it always feels like a part of her, regardless of her relationship with Jade.
And that focus on character goes for every part of the Mitchell family. Rick may be an outdoorsman, but his joy comes from his family, and it’s seen in the smallest exchanges (like when teaching Katie how to drive stick). Or take Aaron, Katies younger brother who absolutely loves dinosaurs. The Raptor Bash is so unique to these characters that it immediately makes their more emotional moments together land.
This is the persistence of creativity that oozes out of this Lord and Miller production. It’s found in every element of the film, from its characters to the comedic bits to the entire art style. And individually, it’s a lot of small elements, like having a cat filter gag that comes up throughout the film. While they don’t immediately pay off, the cumulative effect is felt throughout the production. When cross-cutting is utilized to frame the mirrored journeys of Rick and Katie (who are both reading cue boards from Linda and Aaron respectively), it’s a classic gag from a Lord and Miller film. But it also reinforces these characters as the leads of the film; this isn’t just Katie’s journey, and that is foregrounded from the first moment. I love Encanto (here is my review praising it for being one of the best Disney films of late), but the decision to resolve Mirabel and Abuela’s conflict in the final 10 minutes of the film by introducing us to Abuela’s story at that moment is odd. It introduces a key thematic idea far too late into the film. That’s why I really adore the effort put into every level of The Mitchells vs. The Machines. Because it allows for the family to be messy and strange and finds its power there throughout the entire 114-minute runtime.
But it’s not just the story that keeps me invested, because just like Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, a whole new animation style was created for The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Where Spider-Verse was a comic book come to life, The Mitchells is much more akin to fully realized paintings. The hard edges of objects and balance of shallow and deep shadows make every frame pop out. Add in the blend of 2D and 3D animation, and you have a film that made its visual identity a priority. And when Katie Vision kicks into high gear, the 2D effect adds layers of personality and comedy to the film. Every single object feels hand-designed to be a part of this family and this film. USB sticks are given eyes and hands, robots learn how to cry, and the older robots can split apart into smaller triangles. PAL, the smartphone, has a Doctor Evil chair spin reveal. The entire Dog-Pig-Loaf of Bread gag is brought to life by terrific voice performances and hilarious animation.
Director Michael Rianda and producers Lord and Miller have produced the best example of why “the medium is the message”. Every movie tells its story through its visual design, and that is so apparent in this little film about a robot apocalypse, made for families. It tackles family dynamics in a fun and energetic way without losing the heart at the core. It’s an LGBTQ-inclusive piece of media that more animated projects should be. And it’s extremely funny, even if I buried that lead. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is the most inventive film of 2021, and it would be a shame if it did not win Best Animated Film in the 94th Academy Awards.