In recent years, Western theatrical animation has shifted almost entirely to computer-generated imagery, essentially abandoning traditional 2D cel techniques; consequently, “cartoons” have become increasingly photorealistic. Which is, to a certain degree, a wonderful thing; studios like Disney, Pixar, and (to a lesser extent) DreamWorks excel at crafting naturalistic environmental details (snow, rain, dust particles dancing through beams of sunlight) that make their fantastical settings feel all the more tactile and immersive. Still, it is undeniable that something essential has been lost in the transition.
Fortunately, The Mitchells vs. the Machines further reinforces what 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse already clearly demonstrated: producers Phil Lord & Chris Miller have restored that missing element. This family film (a label that applies to both its inoffensive content and its richly resonant themes) eschews any pretense of “realism” altogether, instead embracing hyper-stylized visuals that evoke the classic "Merry Melodies" created by such masters as Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and Friz Freleng. The backgrounds, for example, frequently resemble rough watercolor renderings, with the “paint” bleeding outside of the sketchy linework. The character designs are equally exaggerated, featuring large eyes and lanky limbs that perfectly suit their rubbery, energetic movements.
Paradoxically (albeit unsurprisingly if you’re even remotely familiar with the industry), these “unrealistic” aesthetic flourishes only serve to make our heroes more expressive and emotionally authentic. CGI is a useful tool, but it is often poorly implemented, resulting in stiff, static, boring animation. Lord, Miller, and their numerous collaborators (including Mike Rianda, Peter Ramsey, Joaquim Dos Santos, and way too many others to list here) are among the few voices currently utilizing the medium to its full potential; thus, their movies are vibrant, kinetic, innovative, inspiring, and effortlessly entertaining.