On a recent episode of the podcast, I found myself derailing a discussion of Toy Story 3 to complain about the bland, unimaginative sheen of mainstream computer animation, as pioneered by Pixar. No matter how much admiration I could muster for the daringly morbid themes Toy Story 3 injected into the mold of a modern children’s film, I couldn’t help but be distracted by its autopilot visual aesthetic. In the wake of Pixar’s resounding success with the Toy Story franchise (the first entirely computer-animated feature films in wide release), we’ve traded in the tactile charm of stop-motion animation and the expressive zeal of hand-drawn 2D illustrations (outside the few anime blockbusters that sneak into American distribution every year) for the least imaginative form of animation possible. There are scenes in that Toy Story sequel where two characters are talking in close-up that are literally just a loose collection of vague colorful orbs and googly eyes, arranged in a shot/reverse-shot configuration. It’s depressing to watch as an animation fan, especially since there are so few alternatives to the 3D computer animation approach Pixar has solidified as an industry standard.
During that tangent of old-man grumblings, I forgot to mention that there was a recent computer animated film that I found encouragingly expressive, turning my stubborn mind around about the general uselessness of the medium: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The offset screenprint aesthetic & psychedelic strobe light effects of Into the Spider-Verse were outright dazzling in the theater, whereas most modern children’s films just deploy their expressionless 3D orbs as vessels for hack jokes in celebrity voiceover. I was reminded of my oversight in failing to single out Into the Spider-Verse as a sign of hope in an otherwise dire mainstream animation landscape while watching the newest release from the same animation wing at Sony, The Mitchells vs The Machines. Also produced by beloved comedy nerds Phil Lord & Chris Miller (with major contributions from some of the folks behind Gravity Falls), The Mitchells vs The Machines repeats a lot of the same visual techniques that made Into the Spider-Verse such an industry standout in 2018. It’s more heartwarming & cute than it is blindingly psychedelic, but it’s at least a promising sign that Into the Spider-Verse will not be left behind as a one-of-a-kind anomaly. The current Pixar standard will not reign supreme forever.
It’s worth noting that The Mitchells vs The Machines meets me more than halfway in trying to work past my CG animation biases. Not only is its teenage protagonist a nerdy cinephile (something I’m obviously guilty of), but her road trip adventure with her parents orbits around a technophobic distrust in modern, automated tech – falling within the confines of my love for Evil Technology movies that dutifully warn that the Internet is trying to kill us all. On her way to freshmen orientation at film school, a movie-obsessed dork butts heads with her old-fashioned, tech-sceptical father, while her mother & brother struggle to keep the family’s final days as a unit as memorably pleasant as possible. That central father-daughter rift is exponentially heightened by a sudden Robot Apocalypse, triggered by an over-ambitious Tech Bro (voiced by Eric Andre) whose willingness to give smartphones power over our daily lives gets way out of hand very quickly. The movie does its best to temper this humans-vs-technology premise with some counterbalance positivity about the joys of the Internet (mostly in how it connects our cinephile hero to other likeminded weirdos across the country), but it mostly just chronicles a Bob’s Burgers style traditional family’s struggles to adjust to a rapidly automated, synthetic world ruled by laptops & smartphones.
While I’m not as breathlessly enthusiastic about The Mitchells vs The Machines as I was for Into the Spider-Verse, I am tickled that I have an example of a modern computer-animated film that both summates & subverts my skepticism over the technology of the artform. The Luddite father character isn’t exactly a satirical punching bag in his stubbornness to adapt to modernity, but I did feel as if my unease with an increasingly computerized world (as opposed to the “authentic” world it has replaced) was being openly mocked through that surrogate. I enjoyed being ribbed like that. I could go on to complain about how the film’s most expressive, most exciting variations on the CG animation format were the traditional 2D illustrations doodled in its margins, if not only because we used to live in a world where we could have movies entirely animated in that style. My nostalgia for older formats shouldn’t supersede what’s accomplished here as a shake-up in the medium, though. This is an energetic, visually imaginative kids’ movie that pushes past the usual limitations of what most CG animated movies of its ilk attempt. Not for nothing, it also gets online meme humor in a way most mainstream movies would fall on their face trying to emulate. It’s a film firmly rooted in the language and the humor of a technological world it also thumbs its nose at.
My only real complaint, then, is that it’s a (mildly) technophobic comedy with a Le Tigre song on the soundtrack that’s somehow not “Get Off The Internet”??? Seems like an oversight.