By David T. Valentin
The Mitchells vs. the Machines may not only be one of my new favorite animated movies, but also one of my new favorite uniquely queer animated movies to date.
The movie follows Katie Mitchell, a quirky, artistic, last-girl-vibe kind of gal who just wants to move away from her family, to become a film major and get away from her troubling increasingly distant relationship with her father, Rick Mitchell, who doesn’t seem to quite get her. There’s her 1st grade teacher mother, Linda Mitchell, and her quirky, adorable best friend of a little brother Aaron Mitchell who’s obsessed with dinosaurs and is dreading his sister’s departure to college. In a last-minute effort to reconcile his torn relationship with his daughter, Rick cancels Katie’s plane ticket to school and decides he’s going to drive Katie to college himself, while having one last family road trip along the way. Goofy awkwardness ensues with the usual family bickering in between, so, you know, the usual family animated comedy film? But there’s a catch; a group of robots, developed by a leading tech-corporatist, Mark Bowman, gain sentience and try to kidnap the whole human race so they can launch them into outer space and create a better Earth without humans. The Mitchells are the last humans to survive and decide that they are the family who needs to take down the rising robo-apocalypse.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines is one of the few films that balances the delicate critique of technology while also not being totally Boomer about it. The film makes valid critiques of the dangers of the internet while also proposing how to remedy such dangers, through using the internet for connectivity, creativity and knowledge, best represented by Katie Mitchell and the eventual relationship she continues through the use of the internet with her family by the end of the film. Along the way are a bunch of sprinkled jokes that poke fun at phone-obsessed millennials and Gen Zers while also poking fun at Boomers who have a hard time using technology. And these jokes are never too cringy and never seem to miss.
At the same time, the characters of the film are all lovable and have equal amounts of screen time to develop and fulfill their existing character arcs. I never once felt that I didn’t quite understand the emotions of the characters and I also never felt like character motivations were at all confusing. Each character has their part to play and then some. Throughout the entire film you know what’s at stake and you know how the characters are feeling about those stakes.
With that being said, the animation is smooth, beautiful and also unique in its successful attempt at immersing the audience into the film. It does the part of telling not only the physical story, but also the thoughts of the characters through comic-like thought bubbles—bulbs going off for an idea, and background animations that set the mood. The animation of The Mitchells vs the Machines very much gives me Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse kind of vibes, which makes sense given the fact it was created by the same people. The result is a colorful, aesthetically pleasing world that both grounds you in the real-world while also inviting you into the imaginations of several of the characters.
But while the animation, the jokes, and the conflict are all pretty solid, that’s not really what got me so excited watching The Mitchells vs. the Machines. What really got me excited for the film was how queer it is, not only because it has an openly queer main character (as confirmed by the ending), but how queer and subtle it is in its critique of heteronormative nuclear families and how failure can be a huge chance to redefine success not to society’s standards but to your own standards.
I couldn’t help but think Jack Halberstam’s book, The Queer Art of Failure, a book in which he discusses that the usually heteronormative standards of success, like marriage, childbearing, and creating a family, actually set up queer children to fail. Halberstam writes:
“Stockton proposes that childhood is an essentially queer experience in a society that acknowledges through its extensive training programs for children that heterosexuality is not born but made. If we were all already normative and heterosexual to begin with in our desires, orientations, and modes of being, then presumably we would not need such strict parental guidance to deliver us all to our common destinies of marriage, child rearing, and hetero reproduction. If you believe that children need training, you assume and allow for the fact that they are always already anarchic and rebellious, out of order and out of time.”
In other words, children are naturally curious, imaginative, and queer, always looking to explore and experiment, in order to experience new ways of living and to explain that experience by living it. Applied to The Mitchells vs. The Machines, much of the conflict and solutions of the nuclear family are resolved not by reinforcing nuclear, heteronormative values upon many of the queer and queer-coded characters through assimilation and watering down of queer personality, but to embrace the uniqueness of the individual’s natural curiosity in order to form a collective greater than the sum of its parts.
Take for example Katie Mitchell, our quirky main character who wants to escape the mundane, heteronormative clutches of her family and hometown to be in a more accepting, creative and imaginative environment at Film college—a place where she’s appreciated for being different. Here her queerness is not seen as something as a negative or a burden, but as a fresh new perspective that allows her to see the world in a more creative and imaginative way. Even better, Katie is unapologetic in who she is. She doesn’t try to conform to a heteronormative lifestyle, and she doesn’t try to water down her personality. Instead, the film positions the conflict not in Katie’s queerness as the problem, but the lack of effort in her father to understand Katie’s queerness.
At the beginning of the film Rick says, “I know teenagers are meant to rebel against their parents or something, but I don’t know I just thought we’d be different.” There is this idea in society that children naturally go through a rebellious stage, a stage where they withdraw, fight back, and ultimately reject their parents rules and teachings. But given what Stockton says in his quote, if children are naturally curious, experimental, and queer, and the rigorous rules and discipline from of our parents are meant to “train us” in the way our parents want children to act, then it means their discipline only acts to bury our authentic selves and keeps children from defining and exploring who they are on their own terms.
Rick fails to realize that in not embracing his family’s queerness, their uniqueness, he has become like everyone else, so there was never a chance of their family being “different” in the way he means it. Perhaps if he had fostered his family’s queerness, embraced it, they would already be different and there would be no rebellious phase because children would feel heard, seen and supported. It is a reality that many parents of queer children must face and openly acknowledge—that in trying to discipline their children to be like them and like everyone else, they leave their queer child ill-equipped to deal with the inevitable failure of not fitting in. Even worse, that if they had fostered their child’s queerness, their differences and had been there actively attempting to understand their child’s queerness, they would not lose out on the important years when a child begins to discover their authentic self. Linda openly acknowledges that by the end of the conversation noting that if Rick doesn’t take responsibility in his inability to understand his child’s queerness that their relationship will never be fixed, and they as parents will lose out on all the important moments in Katie’s life.
And that’s where the main message of the film seems to lie, not in the surface level critique of technology, which seems all to obvious, but in its critique of the nuclear family defined by patriarchal and hierarchical standards rather than a collective, team building effort. And we see that in the actual conflict of the story, not in the robo-apocalypse but in Rick’s refusal to reach into his inner child and its imagination and curiosity to come to understand his daughter, the inner child we come to learn through Rick’s backstory that he instilled within her. Rather than trying to understand Katie’s imagination and creativity as a solution, which is also the source of their strong connection when Katie was a child, Rick instead doubles down on his heteronormative standards of success and insists that Katie just can’t do anything with a film degree quite possibly because he was forced to give up on his dreams in order to adhere to heteronormative standards of success. He doesn’t understand that Katie’d rather attempt at something that has a chance of failure, rather than not attempt at all; because Katie understands that even in failure there is a chance to improve and reinvent yourself mainly because she’s already failed to fit in. Even worse, Rick decides to pull his family into a road trip, something he feels will succeed in bringing him and Katie closer, not at all realizing he’s not attempting to understand her queerness, because he has completely buried his authentic and “queer” self.
At first glance Rick’s demand for his family to appreciate his road trips and love for the outdoors seems to be him doubling down into heteronormative values of success through participating in things that could be seen as more masculine and traditional. This is expressed even further through his stereotypical dad design which tricks the audience into believing Katie and Rick’s conflict is going to be nothing more than heteronormative traditions v. queer expression. But as we learn later on in the film, Rick actually gave up his own dream in order to pursue a normal family. In other words, Rick gave in to heteronormative standard success because of his fear of failure and to raise a family, which ended up dysfunctional and strange. But he can’t seem to recognize the queerness of his family because he thinks what made giving up his dream worth it was becoming a dad, rather than the uniqueness of their family. He refuses to see that his family is unique not because they’re a family for the sake of being a family, but because in their uniqueness to redefine themselves individually against what’s considered “normal” that if only they embrace their uniqueness, that queerness, they can (and by the end of the film do) create something more authentic.
While it’s entirely possible to see Rick’s love for nature as the film’s critique of an overwhelming takeover of technology and a demand back to simpler times or a push toward more traditional values, I’d assert Rick’s backstory and love of nature does quite the opposite. In the film nature for Rick, and even Katie as a child, represents child-like wonder, imagination, and curiosity; a moment in time where the mind is free of societal expectations where the only goal in life was exploration and experience, a call from our innate queerness to be without restraint.
It is in Rick’s backstory where the true sadness and conflict lies, the conflict of pursuing your dreams, despite failure or playing it safe, adhering to heteronormative standards of success out of fear of failure. That in the end, when Rick needed to choose between his dreams and the chances of success that he chose the safer option, not for himself nor his wife, but for the family he’s created with the birth of Katie to become a father. Little does he realize that if he fails as a father in the way society defines it and not the way he can redefine what it could mean to be a father (by embracing the queerness of Katie and the rest of his family), his decision to give up his dreams is in vain. And in his refusal to see what could be rather than what is, he limits himself to the possibilities of the close, genuine, and authentic relationship he and Katie could have. That if only he fostered Katie’s creativity, the creativity he instilled into her as a child, rather than stifling it, it would help him redefine his role as father rather than seemingly holding on to the dreams he’s given up.
What Rick ultimately fails to realize is that failure is not the end of everything but is instead a chance to redefine yourself and your idea of success—by removing something you’ve failed at, removing something you’re not, you come closer to who you actually are. We see this theme of redefining oneself through the robo-apocalypse. In the sense the robots tear down the world as these characters know it, the heteronormative society that Rick has pigeon-holed himself into thus forcing the characters to either give up or view the situation as one where individuals can redefine themselves.
In the scene after the gas station is attacked and the Mitchells have boarded up the place, Katie insists they must be the ones to save humanity. Rick immediately disagrees, explaining that he rather play it safe. Because the world as Rick knows it, his very nuclear idea of the family where things are what they are and nothing else, there is no other option. He rather become the victim of a robo-apocalypse or wait it out because his ability to see what things could be has been lost. On the other hand, his daughter, used to being the outcast, used to the world not working for her, bends the situations in the film to her advantage, using it as a chance to redefine herself as the hero of a story she never knew she would have to participate in.
It is only when Rick begins to extend an olive-branch to his daughter, to combine both their imaginations and creativity, that he accepts that if he does nothing in the face of this conflict he will be nothing—not a father, not the leader of the family, nothing. No settling into a comfortable identity expected and laid out for him or redefining his role as a father. Through the breakdown of the system, Rick is forced to redefine himself by his standards and not the standards of a heteronormative society and is reminded that, perhaps, trying at your dreams and who you want to be is better than not trying at all. And this breakdown of the system not only effects Katie and Rick, but Linda and Aaron as well. Linda recognizes that what makes a family unique is not simply having a family but allowing your family to be queer and have different perspectives; to not compare to others like the Poseys and instead redefine yourself to your definition of success. Aaron, Katie’s brother, realizes that he’s not such a strange outcast in his love for dinosaurs, and is reminded that if he’s found a best friend in the form of his sister, Katie, he can do it again; that eventually you either find your people, as Katie does by the end of the film, or people come to understand you and become your people. Through Katie’s “coming out,” she helps her family also find their more authentic selves and eventually her family does become her people by embracing their own “queerness.”
The metaphor of queerness doesn’t just pertain to the protagonist of the film, but the villain of the story and the underlying critiques of technology the film brings up. It’s no coincidence that the villain is an AI who attempts to conquer the earth through a robot army where each unit is all the same (a direct critique on how people compare themselves to others and to try to emulate others because they allow society to define success for them). And in the same regard the developer of Pal, Mark Bowman, sees Pal as an individual experience rather than an expansive AI used to expand human creativity and intelligence. In some ways, Pal is correct; we see Linda constantly using it to compare her family to their neighbors the Poseys, and Rick sees technology as a complete distraction. Rather than Linda defining what a family means to her she strives to be the same as the Poseys. But what Linda doesn’t realize that in her drive to be like every other family, she eliminates the special queerness that authentically and genuinely binds her family together; not because they’re blood related but because they have taken the time to understand each other and their individual perspectives. In a way, it’s a found-family moment with a blood related family. In the process of the deconstruction of heteronormative systems through the conflict of the robo-apocalypse, the Mitchells become strangers to one another only to, in the end, meet each other’s genuine self. Which is why it’s so fitting in the end that Katie and the rest of her family are Pal’s downfall, because through the help of Katie, who uses the internet for exploration, creativity and connectivity, she teaches her family to embrace their own queerness thus ultimately proving that if we embraced our innate queerness and come together, we would achieve much more than all of us trying to be the same.
In the end, rather than creating a narrative that makes the queer character feel guilty of moving away to better fit in to the people around them and placing the emotional burden on the child, the Mitchells vs the Machines embraces the main character’s queerness and in turn encourages the characters, specifically parents, to embrace their own queerness (their natural proclivity towards experimentation, creativity and expression). Although coming out is a uniquely queer thing, it is ultimately a process of embracing the parts of you that are authentically you, and not the defenses you’ve put up to protect yourself against a heteronormative society that tries its best to assimilate uniqueness and differences into a single mold. In the end The Mitchells vs the Machines makes the case that coming out not only benefits queer children but cis hetero people as well because such a process allows others to redefine themselves according to their standards and not the heteronormative standards of society. The end result is a society that embraces inclusion, uniqueness, and diversity to create a better future collectively than any of us could create individually. In the end, “our people,” as Katie Mitchell puts it, aren’t always a new group of people. “Our people” might just be the people in front of us, currently hiding behind the masks and the walls they’ve put up and with just a little help and witnessing some confidence from someone else, they too could transform int