Three stars gets absolutely nowhere close to my actual feelings about The Mitchells vs. the Machines, the new film by Sony Pictures Animation that has, after pandemic-related delays, settled into a home on Netflix. There are, in fact, three entirely different films happening here, and I would give three stars to none of them; but this is what the silliness of using star ratings at all leads us to, I guess.

Those three films are, in descending order of my enthusiasm: the follow-up to 2018's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse by the same branch of the multi-tentacled studio, overseen by the same producers, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, and doing every bit as much as that once-in-a-decade masterpiece to shove the medium of computer animation forward, though doing it in a much smaller, less in-your-face register that makes it feel like a more sustainable attempt to create a new normal and less like something special to trot out for comic book adaptations only; a sentimental family comedy about a lame nerd dad and a quirky nerd daughter whose relationship is at its lowest ebb ever right before she's about to leave for film school, and which you could probably plot out in some considerable detail based solely on what I've just given you; and a comedy that does not merely believe that early-2010s social media meme humor is the pinnacle of human expression it is perhaps the entirety of human expression. The last of these is, to me, a bigger problem than the first of these is a strength, though of course there's no accounting for the subjectivity of comedy, and I am well aware that many people have found the film to be a terrifically hilarious jab out our silly online age. I do not begrudge these people, even though I found The Mitchells vs. the Machines to be about as funny as planning a funeral. It probably doesn't help that the protagonist, around whose sense of humor the film has been built, is exactly a kind of "lol, i'm just SO RANDOM haha, hope you can keep up with how zany and quirky I am!" extremely online youngish person that I put genuine effort into avoiding in real life, and I would have been very happy if the film had ended with her getting run over by a bus.

Anyway, that's not worth getting into; the comedy works for you or it doesn't, and the fact that it's hard to imagine it working any less for me isn't predictive. So let's stick with the things that can actually be quantified, starting with the story of how 18-year-old Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is thrilled to be heading to film school in California and getting away from her boring Michigan family, so she can continue developing her hyper-absurd no-budget parody shorts that I am 100% sure are not the kind of thing that a college freshman in 2020 (the year the film is explicitly set) would be making. 2010 would probably work. But co-writers and -directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe (the former was creative director on the celebrated Disney Channel series Gravity Falls, which has left echoes in the character design) seem content enough to assume that everybody under the age of 35 is basically indistinguishable, and that internet meme culture began with Numa Numa in 2005 and ended with Nyan Cat in 2011.

Anyways, Katie is off to school, and this is exciting for many reasons, but the most exciting is that she can finally get away from her boring, ever-so-vaguely hostile dad Rick (Danny McBride), who simply does not get her sense of humor at all - Rick, I feel ya - and is concerned, in terms more judgmental than caring, that she'll never, ever be able to sustain herself financially making this kind of stuff - Rick, you are entirely corret. For his part, Rick is terrified to realise how badly he's let his relationship with his daughter decay, and in a last-minute, obviously-idiotic plan to make things better, he decides to force her and the other two Mitchells - mom Linda (Maya Rudolph) and little brother Aaron (Rianda) - to go on a road trip. This is fortunate timing, since a big tech CEO named Mark Bowman (Eric André) has picked this exact week to introduce his new AI robot personal assistant droids to the market, and his old phone-based AI personal assistant, PAL (Olivia Colman, giving the film's best performance by several hundred yards) is so pissed off at being made redundant that she decides to take over all of the robots and kill all humans. Within minutes of the attack starting, the Mitchells, in their ancient, non-digital station wagon, are the only people left on the planet who can fight back against the tyrannical computer forces.

This is harmless as hell, and not really very interesting; The Mitchells vs. the Machines has no greater inspiration than to parlay this into a limp "smartphones and the internet of things are bad, except when they're good" message that's too vague to believe in itself. The main thrust, of course, is getting Katie and Rick to appreciate each others own quirks more and celebrate their idiosyncrasies as a family and as individuals -  this is a film that is extraordinarily invested in selling us on the idea that these are marvelous cartoon oddballs, though they're pretty much just prefab movie-style "weird". Katie is a generic "lolrandom" social media type; Rick gets all of his personality purposefully backloaded for the purpose of a third-act twist that leaves him feeling like an unmotivated square for most of the running time. Linda has no apparent problems other than being obsessed with her neighbors on Instagram, a Chrissy Teigen/John Legend -type couple actually voiced by Teigen and Legend, in case you were curious of exactly where the limits of the film's interest in critique social media culture ends. Other than how distracting it is that he's voiced by an adult male with a somewhat deep voice, Aaron's quirkiness goes as far as liking dinosaurs and being nervous around girls, those two extraordinary strange character traits that no tween boy in history has ever exhibited. The killer AI army threatens to make this interesting, but it tends to be flattened into serving the same "you know where this is going before it even starts" vibe of the rest of the storytelling.

So far, a movie about which I have almost nothing nice to say: Colman is great, and the jokes centering around the family's awful pug, who keeps getting abused in different ways, are at least different in their absurdity than the "let's just pug early-'10s internet humor into a movie and see what happens" mode. But I did start out by suggesting that, if nothing else, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a genuinely groundbreaking work of computer animation, and if my dislike of the rest of the movie is almost purely a matter of comic taste (the tedious predictability of the story doesn't matter if it's funny), declaring it a radical leap forward in animation technique is really just plain, objective truth.

There's some flash in here, but the flashiness isn't what's amazing. Katie's daydreams manifest, in the film, as extensions of her sketches, and the film flickers between 2-D and 3-D, sometimes just pressing her or other characters against 2-D environments. Or sometimes there are just little 2-D grace notes cropping up in the small parts of the frame. That's fun and energetic, but it's not new. What's new is the extraordinary care and effort that went into how the film has been lit and textured. Basically, Rianda wanted the film to look painted: not like realistic physical models, even physical models of weird-looking cartoon figures. He wanted the film to look like a three-dimensional watercolor painting, and by God, that's what Sony Imageworks figured out how to give him. It's most noticeable in the human characters' hair and clothing: rather than the Pixar standard of having every single fiber exist as a flawlessly-rendered strand that combines into a free-flowing mass, the surfaces in The Mitchells vs. the Machines have been digitally painted with the shading and mottling that suggests those individual fibers, and have done so for hundreds of years of paintings. And those paintings were painstakingly planned out to adopt exactly the right shape when they were wrapped onto the three-dimension models. This is true of virtually every single surface in the movie, and it gives everything from the indistinct smear of tree foliage to the rusty blocks of a brick building, right up to the scuffs and flushed cheeks on the characters' own faces, the feeling of being delicately, lovingly crafted by hand. Insofar as the movie is all about finding the pleasurable warmth of low-fi human-scaled life, the soft, blurry colors and diffuse lighting all help to give it that warmthy, making it look casual and unfussy compared to the extreme detail of most CGI animation - paradoxically so, since this was in fact an extravagant, labor-intensive way to go about doing things.

And that only brings us halfway though the film's visual style! As a contrast to these melting watercolors, the specifically "digital" spaces - PAL's lair, mostly, and mostly in the last act - are created as huge voids of strong unnatural colors, glowing from within rather than lit from outside, without any features other than geometric shapes slicing into them to define walkways and walls. It's very difficult to resolve these into three-dimensional environments; they feel like kind of pure, empty, fields of digital emptiness, a perfect space for PAL - three white lines on a blue field defining an entire character - to create as her preferred space. It's sleek and sterile and the bright colors create a kind of forced simulation of energy and merriment in a kind of bloodless market-tested way, exactly the right fit for this story of bleeding-edge tech sold to a willing captive audience out of obligation more than need. The entire look of the film is as astonishing as it gets, boldly-conceived and perfectly-executed, and it wouldn't just be possible for this to be the most exciting piece of big-budget American animation in 2021 when all is said and done; it would be more surprisingly, frankly, if it didn't.