As a culture, we have a bad habit of writing family films off as trivial or “easy” when, in many instances, they contain some of the most creative, fun, and carefully crafted stories you can find. Take The Mitchells vs. The Machines, a family film that, though ridiculous and wide-appealing (as if it’s a bad thing to appeal to wide audiences?), tells a story that’s funny, heartfelt, and engaging from start to finish.
There’s a lot in this movie that I want to go back and study. The jokes are built up exceptionally, the characters all contain fascinating and unique relationships, and the over-the-top climax might be one of the strongest I’ve witnessed in a while. But all these factors aside, the key thing I noticed in my first viewing was how the film uses symbols to tell their story.
Specifically, they use a single symbol- the wooden moose. Today, I figured I’d break down how this symbol works within the narrative, and how it’s inclusion emphasizes and illuminates key aspects of the story’s themes.
Written By: Mike Rianda & Jeff Rowe
Where to Watch: Netflix
Tracking The Symbol
First Spotting: We first see the symbol in Katie’s “give away” box. The image here suggests that that she no longer cares about the wooden moose- it’s not something she believes is worth carrying along with her.
Second Spotting: We are then informed of the moose’s backstory as her dad, Rick, watches old family videos. We realize he gave her the moose at one point while she was scared of being alone. Now we understand that this moose was once important to her, but, based on the context provided, she doesn’t care about it anymore. She has changed since she first got the moose, and no longer values it.
Third Spotting: It’s not until right before the third act’s beginning that we see the symbol again. Here, it appears in yet another home video, pre-dating the one before it. In this one, we learn the origin of the moose- it comes from the parent’s cabin, which they left (presumably) in order to raise Katie. Again, the symbol evolves- it’s now representative of the sacrifices Rick has made out of his love for Katie. What’s more is that this time, Katie is the one interacting with the symbol, whereas the last two spottings were centered around Rick. And so, with the symbol’s changing nature, our protagonist is inspired towards change.
Fourth (and final) Spotting: The family is dropping Katie off at college. While saying goodbye to Rick, she shows him the moose and says she’ll always carry it with her. As they embrace, Rick sees her put the moose into her pocket. The narrative is fully wrapped in this action, and we are told that Katie, undeniably, has learned to appreciate her family and will always remember the sacrifices they’ve made out of their love for her.
It’s almost overwhelming to break this down and see just how carefully implemented this symbol is, while appearing wonderfully simple all the same. By defining the symbol, tying it to a specific emotion, and then developing it towards a central theme, the writers allow it to take on a life of it’s own. In just four short beats, the symbol goes from representing a failed relationship to one representing a resurrected relationship, ultimately tying the entirety of this film together.