Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry recommends movies to watch next if you like the Netflix animated feature The Mitchells vs. the Machines.
If any kind of movie works best as a mashup of creative influences, it’s animation. You can do anything with the medium in an artistic sense, and almost everything is permitted because animated content is rarely so realistic as to be too scary or violent or unseemly. It’s not always just that the animators are thinking of parents in the audience when referencing older, more grown-up movies, especially of the horror and apocalyptic science fiction variety, in their otherwise kid-friendly features. Today, a lot of that is coming from filmmakers who are fans of classic cinema, which inspirationally informs their cartoon fare meant for all ages.
For example, Michael Rianda, co-writer and primary director of The Mitchells vs. the Machines, is the kind of guy who was born in the 1980s and grew up on tons of pop culture and will now explain his work as coming from all that’s inside him, shooting out of his gut “like the beam in Donnie Darko.” The kind of guy who incorporates the iconic ’90s toy Furby into his animated feature in the form of a zombie-like horde of cute-yet-also-creepy robots, to the delight of both children and adults for different reasons. The kind of guy who fits in perfectly with the Lord & Miller brand of postmodern popular entertainment.
A lot of the movies you’d find in the DNA of The Mitchells vs. The Machines is obvious, from plot precursors to specific homages and, of course, other productions of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. There are also films Rianda cites as influences on the design and storytelling that you wouldn’t believe. But it’s a genetic mashup so rich and bountiful, and much of that bounty is similar to each other in terms of relevance, that instead of listing everything in my usual backward chronological order, I’m trying something different with this list, grouping the recommendations by format, trope, and genre.
Animated Features and Shorts
Not that this column is for the purposes of finding other films for kids who like The Mitchells vs. the Machines, but there’s no denying that this film owes a lot to other animated films that came before it, and fortunately for most of you, all of them are similarly enjoyable for adults as well as younger viewers. One animated film I wish I could have included but can’t find online anymore is Rianda’s early, also apocalyptic short Everybody Dies in 90 Seconds.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
The Mitchells vs. the Machines is an evolution for both Sony Pictures Animation and Lord & Miller, both of which were also involved with this Oscar-winning superhero movie. I also think the Lord & Miller-helmed Sony animated feature Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (featuring a machine out of control) and the Lord & Miller-scripted and -produced sequel The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (its villain is very similar) have their own connections to the new film, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the most talked about in terms of its being a predecessor but not necessarily a total antecedent. As Rianda tells IndieWire:
“At one point, our VFX supervisor, Michael Lasker, who also worked on ‘Spider-Verse,’ said what we were trying to do was weirdly harder. ‘Spider-Verse’ in some ways leans into the things that CG does so well. It’s sleek and cool, the edges have [Ben-Day] dot patterns. In opposition, our movie is trying to be as organic as possible and have the lines be curly and have the jackets be really rumply. And that stuff is strangely hard in CG. I don’t think he was right because ‘Spider-Verse’ is still out there. If they were trying to make a moving comic book, we were trying to make a moving illustrated book.”
Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
This Wreck-It Ralph sequel is the closest Disney has come to competing with Lord & Miller on the meta-textual level of something like The LEGO Movie, with its in-(mouse)-house cross-promotional cameos (particularly the Disney Princesses scene) and its greater internet-parodying cinematic universe. Plus the computer-focused plot of Ralph Breaks the Internet, with its digital virus enemy, is akin to the A.I. villainy of The Mitchells vs. the Machines. The original Ralph movie is also suggested viewing for the way a villain’s jealousy is the catalyst for the story.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017)
This underrated DreamWorks Animation feature, which has become even less of a notable film since the debut of the Captain Underpants series, came to mind while watching The Mitchells vs. the Machines due to the new movie’s main character similarly being a creative individual (in Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie it’s a duo) whose imagination and artistic output (here comic book writing and illustrating, compared to Katie Mitchell’s filmmaking endeavors) both blend into the style of the film and its storytelling.
The Incredibles (2004)
One of Pixar’s best features, Brad Bird’s The Incredibles is recommended for two reasons. One, it also features a robotic A.I. that goes against its creator and becomes a greater threat than possibly imagined, especially since there’s a safety restraint involved in their programming. Second, The Mitchells vs. the Machines pokes fun at the perfect superhero family of The Incredibles by starring a clan that is the absolute opposite of the Parrs, and whose neighbors are seemingly as perfect as a superhero family that ultimately isn’t a match for the robot apocalypse.
A Goofy Movie (1995)
Another Disney animated feature, the cult classic A Goofy Movie stars Goofy and his teenage son, Max, and follows them on a cross-country road trip and wilderness excursion that correlates to the plans of Rick Mitchell in presumed benefit for his teenage daughter, Katie. Both kids are unhappy about the vacation being sprung on them last minute but, of course, each eventually comes around to have a greater appreciation for their father.
Castle in the Sky (1986)
I need to include something by Hayao Miyazaki because Rianda told Inbtwn Animation Fest that Studio Ghibli movies were an influence, in a way, going so far as to say that The Mitchells vs. the Machines is “an American dirtbag Miyazaki movie.” I’m not sure if there’s a specific film and image he’s referring to when he says “instead of a rose petal going down a river, it’s like a fast-food bag rolling down the street,” so I’m just going to spotlight the first Ghibli production, Castle in the Sky, because it does involve a robot army.
House Hunting Mice (1947)
Michael Rianda loves Looney Tunes cartoons, particularly the work of Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and Frank Tashlin in the 1940s. If he wasn’t so specific in an old interview from 2010, I might have included more Warner Bros. animated shorts involving robots and automation, but all you need first is the Jones-helmed House Hunting Mice, which actually reworks some of the material of the same director’s 1939 short Dog Gone Modern as it involves a model home of the future and house-cleaning robots that pose a threat to the lives of cartoon characters Hubie and Bertie.
Family Vacation Comedies
If The Mitchells vs. the Machines was a live-action comedy, the family dynamic and the situation of the father changing plans last minute to drive them all cross-country to drop Katie off at school rather than send her on her own by plane would have sufficed story-wise. But animated features always need more (now anyway, if not back when A Goofy Movie was made), so… killer robots. But here’s that base ingredient and a couple of examples.
National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) and RV (2006)
Obviously, the original Vacation movie, about the Griswolds driving across America to a Disneyland-esque amusement park in California, is the prime example of the family road-trip comedy. There are some questionable moments in retrospect, but it’s still a classic and the standard against which everything since has been compared. The Mitchells vs. the Machines would feel too subversive, for instance, without its patriarch, Rick Mitchell, being another dominant yet out-of-touch and definitely imperfect dad a la Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold.
And then there’s RV, which seems superficially like a Vacation wannabe, but it’s also different that it feels like connective tissue linking the simplicity of the plot of the semi-autobiographical Vacation to the convoluted synopsis of The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Like the new animated feature, RV follows a cross-country family trip that happens spontaneously, as decided by the dad, in contrast with what was supposed to happen — here it was to be a family trip by plane to Hawaii; in The Mitchells vs. the Machines it was to be just the daughter flying on her own to college.