2021 was a bad year for mainstream films. I’m not talking about how COVID-19 has impacted film-making and the theatre-going experience. I’m talking qualitatively. Last year saw the release of absolute lazy and rushed films like Cruella and Space Jam: A New Legacy. The saving grace of the year, however, was the indie-scene with films like The Green Knight. Unfortunately, they’re not the dominant form of film and mass audience are usually not interested in something that looks too different.
Which is where The Mitchells Vs. The Machines fit in, although the difference is that it got released on Netflix. Normally positioned for a cinematic release in 2020, it finally got distributed online in April 2021. And at the time, the film got critical and audience praise upon release. Praise was given for the animation and its LGBTQ+ representation. And a few weeks back I finally took the time to watch this film. And honestly… they give out praise for any animation film that just exists nowadays, huh?
The film stars the titular Mitchells, a family that the film wants you to think is quote unquote “weird”. Although the film’s brand of weird is as unthreatening as someone trying to stab someone with an origami crane. Katie Mitchell, the main character, is fed up with her family. Aspiring to be a film-maker, she applies for the California school of film-making. However, her plans to be far from her family dissolve in smoke when her father cancels her flight ticket and decide to drive her to California, alongside the rest of the family, making it one more family trip. That’s when the machines attack and capture humanity.
Now, the film isn’t the worst thing ever. Obviously, it looks good, but which CGI film doesn’t? The colours are bright and pop out. The characters are recognisable enough. And there’s a certain bounce in the animation, not dissimilar to Hotel Transylvania, directed by well-known animator-superstar Genndy Tartakovsky. Of course, both are from Sony Animation, so there’s some overlap there. And the hand-drawn makes the film look fuzzy and nice. The 2D-doodles accompanying the film, which the directors dubbed “Katie-vision” don’t do much, but you know… it is different.
That being said, all the fancy technology the film utilises, rings rather hollow in the end. Ironic, because the film tries to make, or rather attempts, to have an anti-technology message about our society. Which just ends as a generic “we’re looking too much at our screens” message. The Mitchells themselves feel more like digital marionettes than actual characters. They’re more cardboard cut-outs with exaggerated traits, which the film mistakes as personality. They’re cartoon characters, devoid of any charm, any humanity. The emotional beats the film wants to have, ring hollow as a result. You’re not attached to them, worry about them or sympathise with them. They’re more like puppets, going through the motions, like… well, machines.
Speaking of machines, the film tries to be clever and play to our way of life. How much the internet and smartphones are engrained in our society. And how dependent we have become as a result. But what it thinks is clever, witty commentary, comes across as very smug and glib. When the evil AI turns of the Wi-Fi, people start to panic, complaining that they can’t upload pretty pictures of their food on-line or harassing someone with the request of seeing them open up a box. Of course, these things are silly in real-life, but the film doesn’t question as to why such things exists. Instead, it just makes jokes about them, points at them and laugh, whilst poking you and saying “Aren’t those people silly? Aren’t you glad you’re not one of them?” It’s supposed to give you this sense of superiority, which is frankly the base of comedy made by liberals. Like they know everything better and you don’t.
The film has this “old man yells at cloud vibe”, like it tries to make comprehend modern reality, but feels stuck in the past. Which explains the scene where a mass of Furbies chase the Mitchells at one point. Furbies at a point were mostly hip in the 90s. And for some reason the film thought it was a good idea to bring those into the fold again for no reason. Well, other than the crew having fond memories of Furby, I guess. It’s very embarrassing for a film hailed for its technological advancement to feel so dated.
Which brings me to another subject I wanted to talk about.
The empty queerness of the film
When I finished the film, I Tweeted this.
And I feel like I need to explain that statement.
When the film got released, it got lauded for its LGBTQ+ inclusivity. Which in all fairness, is too surface-level to warrant any kind of praise. I’m not against queer representation and inclusivity. But I can’t help but be cynical about it. I think representation is more needed in media targeted towards kids than adults. And diversity is sorely needed. But I can’t help but feel like it has been baby-steps all the way in regard to queer personification. And The Mitchells Vs. The Machines isn’t an exception.
So it turns out Katie Mitchell, the main character, is gay and that this is a big step for the queer community. I guess. At the end, her parents ask her if her and Jade are official, a girl who we briefly see when Katie is calling her in the first half of the film. It, however, doesn’t outright state that Katie is gay or bi, just that Jade and her are official or not. It’s still left rather ambiguous if you ask me. For all we know, Katie is bi-curious and might even go for a heterosexual relationship in the end.
Not outright saying Katie is gay, is reason enough to strip her of that status. Few hints are given throughout the film. And those that are, are either blink-or-you-miss it. And mostly they don’t correlate to being gay, rather someone who’s trying to find her own identity like any normal teen at that age. Would it have been better if Katie just said “I am gay” or that she shares a same-sex kiss? Yes!
The reason why I stated that the LGTBQ+ representation is worse here than in The Rise of Skywalker, is that you actually saw two women kiss. The Rise of Skywalker also got lambasted for that, mostly because the main characters are again straight, complete with added love interest to emphasise that they aren’t gay. Throughout the sequel trilogy there was a lot of sexual ambiguity around Finn and Poe, which TroS flat-out denied them. The only two characters we ever see share a same-sex kiss are minor characters. And there has been some criticism levelled at it that it could be easily cut out for countries where homosexuality is severely punished. And that it doesn’t impact representation, because they are in essence minor characters who you barely know. Which is well-earned criticism for a film with empty promises.
With The Rise of Skywalker, you at least have to do a lot of effort to erase it. Someone has to open up editing software, go to the bit they want cut out, cut it out and done. With The Mitchells Vs. The Machines, you can just change the dialogue during the translation for the dub, change the text and it’s gone. The Rise of Skywalker has a more visible representation, even if it is brief. Because it’s tougher to hide that than just a brief bit of dialogue that can easily be changed. It’s maybe weird giving examples on how to edit gay characters out of the film. But that’s what it’s about: visibility. And the more visible you make it, the harder it is to erase it. That’s the point.
It’s also kind of hypocrite of the film. For all its inclusivity, it tries to appease to both camps, like liberals are want to do. Because despite its progressive appeal, the message of the film feels more conservative. Throughout the film, Katie has trouble fitting into her own family, ironically not because she’s gay. But because her father can’t relate to her any more and the two clash. Katie’s arc basically is to learn how to love her own family and accept them. But the thing is that the film tries to frame that Katie is the one at fault for not getting along with her family. Even though it’s her father that aggressively tries, even forces her, to get along with the family.
Whilst Pa Mitchell isn’t the worst film dad, he is pretty high up there. He cancels his daughter’s flight tickets to the school she desperately want to go, forcing her to go on a road trip with the whole family against her will. At one point in their lives, he gave them a screw-driver for the most important celebrations in their lives (his wife’s wedding anniversary, his daughter’s sweet sixteen, …). The film plays it off as charming. Yet it’s never him that at fault. When he finds out Katie was basically saying what he wanted to hear in order for them to get along, it comes off as the biggest betrayal. A huge emotional impact that’s supposed to be the characters’ low point. Even though Katie was well within her right to do so.
And yet in the end, Katie was the one who had to learn about accepting family, even though the film barely makes a mention at why it’s difficult to be part of a family. The generational divide, shifting view points, … None of those get a say. Instead the film says family is important. Important how? A very hollow message, especially with a supposedly queer main character. Because even now, queer people are getting outright rejected by their own parents. Some are thrown out of the house, forced to live on the streets.
It is funny that this film doesn’t even hint at that. Only wanting to sell this fantasy of the nuclear family. Something conservatives are rather fond of. The fact that Katie Mitchell’s reveal at the end, must have served as a sort of “gotcha” to those bigots. You saw a film with a character that turned to be gay at the end? Haha, here’s egg on your face, then. You could make the claim that’s the entire point of the film. Providing this narrative to queer people who want to be accepted by their family. Then why did we not know Katie’s queer until the very end?
The film deliberately hides Katie’s queerness, to illustrate that gay people can be, I guess, as boring as normal people. But what sort of purpose does this serve? If it’s not important, why draw attention to it at the very end? One of the sub-stories of the film is her little brother having a huge crush on a girl. So why can’t she have that crush as well? More time is spent on the brother’s crush, with sappy music and embarrassing moments. Instead, Katie doesn’t get the same moments like he gets. Why not? Wasn’t the purpose to present that gay people are just like other people? Then why did the line needed to be drawn there? Why can’t Katie have her visible love story? For all the praise it gets, it does barely little to advance actual representation. Even if this is a major mainstream film.
And whilst representation is nice, what about representation behind the screens? Why is representation always done by straight men who don’t have the expertise? I’m reminded of another film: Raya and the Last Dragon. Whilst that one was drenched in the SEA diaspora, the directors don’t have any ties to that part of the world. Funny to cry out for representation, whilst it’s sorely lacking behind the scenes.
Whilst I’m transgender, I count myself lucky. Yet I know how bad others of my peers have had it with their families and other people. Why can’t they tell their stories? Why does it always have to be at the hands of men who are probably more interested in telling their stories than ours? Only for diversity points I guess. And it’s always, always a sanitised version for a mass-audience. None of the scars or the trauma that comes with it. Only a safe version aimed at mass appeal.
The thing is that the culture is still dominated by men who want to tell THEIR stories. Say what you want about Steven Universe or She-Ra, but at least it’s created by queer people who wanted to reflect their queerness into their art. I can’t say the same about this or The Haunting of Bly Manor, another show created by a man which has a same-sex couple, albeit more visible than this film. But again has the same problem, providing a sanitised version of queerness so the audience won’t be repulsed. Do they honestly want to see same-sex couples thriving on the screen? Or do they just want the praise for doing what is essentially the bare minimum?
Whatever the case, The Mitchell’s Vs. The Machines proves that we’re still far away to ever be concluded in the conversation.