I remember it clearly. It was the February half-term of 2014, and as was customary for weeks off when my cousins were visiting, we found ourselves at the cinema. Unfortunately, a vote weighed against me: combined with the inclusion of younger kids in our watching party, we ended up sat in front of a screen ready to (begrudgingly) watch The Lego Movie. I was expecting a corporate cash-grab, the kind of animation that children love and parents hate. Instead, what I got was a subversive meta-comedy about the woes of capitalism, full to the brim with nods to pop culture, genuinely funny jokes, and a climax that you can’t help but be moved by. Within 24 hours, I was back in the cinema for my second helping.
In hindsight, it was my own fault for underestimating the minds behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the 21 Jump Street movies. With such brilliant comedies already under their belts, The Lego Movie was a natural progression. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, while not household names, have only excelled since then, having made many of the defining animated films of the past decade. Their roles in these films have changed over time, but their specific brand of quirky, heart-warming hilarity and sheer chaos is present in every film they’ve made. Their latest production, The Mitchells vs The Machines, at the time of writing, sits at No. 3 on the UK Netflix charts, as well as holding its own as the top movie on the streaming service in over 40 countries. It is currently considered a prime candidate for Best Animated Feature next year.
Turning back to see where the pair started, it seems like humble beginnings considering the heights of their current success. Their MTV animated series Clone High was short-lived, as the show was soon cancelled due to its controversial portrayal of historical figures. Meanwhile, the pair continued working on popular projects outside of animation, writing and directing multiple episodes of How I Met Your Mother.
One critic once referred to Lord and Miller as “the patron saints of lost causes in the movie world… that use low expectation as a licence for experimentation.” This was demonstrated in their return to animation and their feature directorial debut, 2009’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. While adapted from a novel written in the 70s, the pair transformed the story into a sci-fi comedy with film references galore, ridiculous humour, and an emotional thread regarding a son longing for his father’s approval. It was this success that led to their Warner Bros-produced The Lego Movie: a film that showcases all that makes Lord and Miller’s work great. This film would be the one to signal them as ones to watch: it holds a 96% critics’ approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as having a Metacritic score of 83, with hardly any negative reviews. While snubbed by the Oscars, it won Best Animated Feature at the BAFTAs, as well as picking up accolades from a host of Critics’ Associations.
Following on from the success of these films, it seemed that their Blockbuster breakthrough was imminent when they were brought on to direct the Star Wars prequel, Solo. Unfortunately, creative differences between them and Disney meant that their version of the film would never be brought to fruition.
However, it was their break from animation that would lead them to them producing and co-writing their most exciting and celebrated animated project to date: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The 2018 film was met with universal acclaim across the commercial and critical spheres, taking home 40 awards, including all four (Golden Globes, Critics Choice, BAFTAs, Oscars) of the major awards it was nominated for. This film was a game-changer, both as a Spider-Man film and an animated film. It was the film debut of Miles Morales, first introduced in the Ultimate Fallout comics, who had been a fan favourite for a long time, with many asking Sony to give screen time to this biracial Afro-Latino superhero. On the animation front, it was its highly stylised blend of 2D and 3D animation that made you feel as if inside a comic book, that made the film such a unique visual feast.
On their latest outing, The Mitchells vs The Machines, the pair have stepped back into a production-only role, allowing debut director Mike Rianda—who wrote the script alongside Jeff Rowe—to really flex his creative muscles. In Rianda they have found the perfect collaborator; he shares their same chaotic sense of humour and retains their key warmth, charm, and honesty. Basically, Lord and Miller’s influence drips from every frame.
In a Ted Talk, Lord recalled how producer Amy Pascal’s input majorly changed the direction of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Pascal’s notes taught he and Miller two lessons: the power of creative collaboration, and the importance of emotion in a story. Seeing the journey of their career, it is clear to see that with each new film they are involved in, they incorporate the lessons learnt from their previous work. The Lego Movie‘s in-jokes about other intellectual properties feels like a step up from the Cloudy films’ homages to classic disaster and monster movies. Spider-Verse holds a similar central theme to The Lego Movie: its assertion that “anyone can wear the mask,” echoes Emmet’s speech to President Business in which he proclaims that we are all “the special”. The most noticeable carry over is the blend of 2D and 3D animation from Spider-Verse, which is cranked up a notch in The Mitchells vs The Machines: the 2D animation used to represent protagonist Katie’s drawings and memos explode onto the screen, showing us each scene through her eyes (the animators literally refer to it as Katie-vision). They also often re-team with collaborators from their previous movies: Mark Mothersbaugh has delightfully scored a number of LordMiller movies, and familiar voices tend to pop up across the catalogue (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in The Lego Movie are my personal favourite).
As well as this, all of these films evidently draw from Lord and Miller’s history in comedy. This is one of the elements that makes these films stand out compared to other animation studios’ work. While Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks films all have moments of humour, they aren’t full blown comedies, whereas I would define the majority of LordMiller animations as such.
It seems trivial to compare them with Disney and Pixar, but the reality is, they are the dominating content makers in the field, and Lord and Miller have had to prove themselves worthy against them. I believe they have, as do others (Empire referred to them as “light-years ahead of the competition.”). It’s a lot to do with the fact that they never try to be Disney/Pixar. While Pixar films are often remembered for their sentimentality—their ability to pull on heartstrings, and make us cry—LordMiller films are sentimental in a much more understated way, each emotional moment paired with a gag to pull us out of the moment soon after. The latter take themselves a lot less seriously than the former, and it shows in the self-referential tone of their films.
While Disney whisk us away with heroes and princesses and princes, LordMiller films (despite their more ridiculous plot-lines and fantasy worlds) manage to feel a lot more grounded and truthful. The animation of Pixar is often marked out as some of the best in the world; Sony Pictures foregoes this, instead choosing to attain a feeling of realness rather than the look of it. That’s not to say that the animation is lesser, but that they have accepted the beautiful malleability that the form provides them, and don’t feel the need to sacrifice that unique cartoonish look to be more ‘authentic’. In terms of worldbuilding, it’s the same difference as that between Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series.
Another key difference, and one I have already touched upon, is the way in which LordMiller films strip us of ‘chosen ones’ and ‘destinies to fulfill’, and instead show us that heroism and bravery all come from our choices. We can all be the protagonist, even if we feel unprepared or dysfunctional. It’s is a powerful message that I’m so glad pops up time and time again in their films, showing the kids watching them the power of their own potential. The ‘leap of faith‘ sequence from Into the Spider-Verse remains for me one of the most poignant scenes in recent cinema. As I prepared to leave home for the first time to a new city where I knew very few people, it was remembering that scene that pushed me to just do it.
Disney animation will always remain the first thing that comes to mind when people think of animated movies. However, I suggest that every now and then, you substitute the castles and the magic for the big-hearted, wholesome, larger-than-life, truly chaotic filmography of Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Your life will be all the better for it.
The Mitchells vs The Machines is now available to stream on Netflix.
Words by Rehana Nurmahi
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