Home > Reviews > THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES – Mark Mothersbaugh


Original Review by Christopher Garner

The Mitchells vs the Machines is a Sony Animation production that was picked up by Netflix after its theatrical release was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. It follows the dysfunctional Mitchell family (quirky parents Rick and Linda, and misfit children Katie and Aaron) on a road trip from their home in Michigan to California to take Katie to film school, where she’s sure she’ll finally get to be with “her people” for the first time in her life. The cross-country trip is Rick’s misguided attempt to fix his fracturing relationship with Katie. Their trip is interrupted by a robot apocalypse, however, and it then falls on the Mitchells to save the world. The film is the directorial debut of Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe, who also wrote the screenplay, and is produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who are no strangers to screwball animations (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie). The main characters are voiced by Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, and Rianda himself. The film has been a critical and commercial success (as far as commercial success can be measured on a streaming service). It is well-made and its family focus will resonate with most viewers. I found myself moved by it several times, despite its near-constant silliness.

The musical score is provided by long-time Lord and Miller collaborator and veteran animation composer Mark Mothersbaugh. The former Devo front man scored 172 episodes of the Rugrats TV series from 1991–2006, and in addition to Lord and Miller’s films has also scored the Hotel Transylvania franchise and, most recently, The Willoughbys and The Croods: A New Age. The tone of this score is similar to Mothersbaugh’s scores for the Meatballs and Lego Movie films. Producer Chris Miller said that this score “does all the things that Mark does really well—which is sweet melodies, really unusual sounds, and then weird computer beepy boopy stuff that you’ve never heard before.” Mothersbaugh knows how to blend electronic and orchestral elements together effectively, and this film is really perfect for his talents. He generally uses the synth and electronic sounds to represent the machines and orchestral and organic sounds to represent the Mitchells. When the Mitchells come face to face with the robots on screen, that tension is mirrored between those elements coming together in the score. The robot uprising gets a dissonant three-note theme, and the Mitchells get two musical identities throughout the film—a softer theme for the emotional moments, and a bluegrass sound for their more heroic antics. There are also several excellent convergences of orchestra and electronics along the way that drive the most exciting scenes in the film.

The score starts off with “Columbia Opening/Apocalypse,” which features fun syncopated hand claps and upbeat guitar and gives us a short theme that might represent Katie and that is repeated in the next cue, “Katie’s Life/Good Cop Dog Cop.” Before getting back to that theme, though, the second cue takes us through an eclectic mix of disparate musical tones and ideas that accompany a montage of Katie’s silly homemade films, veering quickly from old-timey piano to heavy metal to odd plucked strings, rarely staying on any one sound for longer than 30 seconds.

And that’s not out of the ordinary for this score. The film uses freeze-frames and short flashbacks liberally. The music follows all of these jerky shifts, which works well in the film, but can lead to some aural whiplash when heard away from the picture. There are 35 tracks of original score on the album, but only 11 of them are longer than 2 minutes. The score is dominated by short tracks (the shortest lasting only 13 seconds), and most of the longer tracks are actually strings of shorter musical ideas or sounds mashed together to follow the fast-paced cuts on screen.

“Laptop Breaks/Home Movies” introduces the first musical identity for the Mitchells—a quiet and contemplative sound that usually accompanies breaks in the action when members of the family get a chance to breathe and think about their relationships. I’ll call it the family theme, though it really is more of a sound than strict set of notes. It can be identified by a soft electronic harmony and a solo female vocal (that might also be electronically manipulated). The sound can be heard again in “On the Roof” and “Hiding in the Woods.”

The Robot’s theme is introduced in “Rise of the Robots,” a cue full of harsh electronics. The dissonant and warped theme appears only once in this cue, at :35. The most prominent use of the Robot theme comes in “Robots Capture Humans” which begins with a variation of the three-note motif both in the choppy strings and accompanying synths. Forty-two seconds into the track, synths blast the robot theme twice, and the three notes that make up that motif are repeated in varying order for the rest of the cue. Though the robots have their theme, they are also represented by what Miller calls a “weird … synthy Tron element.” That synthetic sound is prominently on display in tracks like “Robots Falling from the Sky,” “Eat Laser Robots,” “Two Dumb Robots” and basically every other track that uses the word “robot” in its title.

There are several inspirational speeches throughout the film and the corresponding score cues are some of the best on the album. “Katie’s Speech” grows into a noble and hopeful melody. “Rick’s Pep Talk” starts quietly, but begins to build a sense of urgency and optimism with banjo, strings, and choir. “Katie Explains” begins with the robot theme, but segues into a softer sound that builds with cooing choir and synth into some really lovely strings at the end.

The second musical identity for the Mitchells is a bluegrass sound, particularly featuring the banjo, which accompanies moments in the film when the family does something heroic. The first instance of this sound comes in “Drive Drive!” which begins ominously with short brass blasts and drums. Very suddenly at 1:32 the music changes to full-on bluegrass, but only for three seconds. It ends with an odd synthetic sound and cooing choir. Perhaps the most ingenious inclusion of this sound comes in “Mall Robots Attack,” one of the better examples of action music in the score. At the end of the cue the music turns into all-out bluegrass, but with synths taking up the rolling line usually played by a banjo. It is pretty brilliant.

The score is full of unique sounds. “Robots march on PAL” incorporates a thunderous banging sound that may well be a basketball being slammed into the floor of a cavernous gymnasium. “Foolish Human Air” accompanies a faux airline commercial the robots create to inform all the captured humans they’ll be launched into space, which the captives are eventually okay with when they’re informed they will have wi-fi. The choir chanting “ta ha ha” in “Furbies Attack_Router Knocked Out” heralds the arrival of a giant laser-breathing Furby. Rolling banjo accompanies their battle with the furry menace and the cue ends with cascading strings and noble horns. It is one of the best cues on the album.

The film’s third act begins with “Katie and Linda” as the Mitchells arrive in Silicon Valley, which has been transformed into a robotic hellscape. “Entering Robot City” maintains a steady beat by which the family marches into the city disguised as robots. “They Capture Linda and Rick” has some impressively tragic strings. A couple appearances of the family theme come in “Hiding in the Woods” and “Katie’s Video” as the now separated family begins to realize how much they love and appreciate one another.

The climax begins with “Katie to the Rescue,” as fast synths, choir, and orchestra carry the action until a two-second freeze frame that sees the return of that full-on bluegrass sound. “Linda Kicks Ass” includes drum kit, electric guitars, and rapid brass burst and string runs over a bed of racing synths. The impressive “Katie and Rick Work Together” includes some banjo plucking that might be as close to noble as banjo can get, a soft cameo of the family theme, and then the grandest variation of the family theme. It may be the most cohesive cue on the album, with a beginning, middle, and end that aren’t interrupted at all by sudden changes of musical style. “I’m a Mitchell!” then sees a triumphant variation on Katie’s theme from the first two tracks. “Humanity is saved” is victorious, but then “Katie’s Dead” changes the mood to somber, before turning playful at the end. “Arriving at College” is one of the loveliest highlights of the score, providing an nice emotional catharsis.

The albums ends with the original song “On My Way,” by Alex Lahey. It really captures the feeling of moving on from something good to something even better and accompanies the Mitchells as they set off on another road trip. The song carries over into the credits, which include a montage of old family photos of the major cast and crew members, reminding us in a moving way that we pretty much all come from weird families.

Anyone familiar with Mothersbaugh’s music for animated films can guess what they’re going to find with this score. The film and score are an odd but charming mix of styles that change on a dime, occasionally punctuated by surprisingly emotional moments. Those who don’t care for short tracks and frequent tonal shifts may be put off by much of the score, and the thematic ideas here are short enough that they may be hard to pick out on a first or second listen, but the music serves the film very well, and has several highlights that are definitely worth a listen.

Buy the Mitchells vs the Machines soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Columbia Opening/Apocalypse (1:15)
  • Katie’s Life/Good Cop Dog Cop (3:17)
  • Laptop Breaks/Home Movies (3:43)
  • Rise of the Robots (1:30)
  • Robots Falling from the Sky (1:25)
  • Eat Laser Robots (1:15)
  • Robots Capture Humans (1:36)
  • On the Roof H (1:53)
  • Two Dumb Robots (0:55)
  • We Could Get Our Lives Back (0:13)
  • Katie’s Speech (1:28)
  • Drive Drive ! (2:07)
  • Robots March on PAL (0:45)
  • Foolish Human Air (0:53)
  • Abandoned Mall ! (1:35)
  • Mall Robots Attack (1:56)
  • Furbies Attack/Router Knocked Out (3:29)
  • Rick’s Pep Talk (2:21)
  • The Stealthbots (1:21)
  • Katie and Linda (1:56)
  • Entering Robot City (3:05)
  • The Pod Falls (0:51)
  • They Capture Linda and Rick (0:57)
  • Hiding in the Woods (2:36)
  • Katie’s Video (1:52)
  • Katie to the Rescue (2:03)
  • Screwdriver Escape (1:47)
  • Yub Tub (2:00)
  • Linda Kicks Ass (1:35)
  • Katie Explains (1:45)
  • Katie and Rick Work Together (2:17)
  • I’m a Mitchell! (0:44)
  • Humanity Is Saved (1:17)
  • Katie’s Dead (0:56)
  • Arriving at College (2:32)
  • On My Way (written by Alex Lahey, Sophie Payten, and Gab Strum, performed by Alex Lahey) (3:05)

Running Time: 64 minutes 42 seconds

Sony Classical (2021)

Music composed by Mark Mothersbaugh. Conducted by Tim Davies. Orchestrations by Tim Davies, Lorenzo Carrano, Jeremy Levy and Jordan Siegel. Additional music by John Enroth, Albert Fox, Moises Garcia, Wataru Hokoyama, Tim Jones, Peter Siebert and Alan Tyler. Recorded and mixed by Brad Haehnel. Edited by Dominick Certo and Katie Greathouse. Album produced by Mark Mothersbaugh, Spring Aspers and Ralph Sall.

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