Like so many integral aspects of Netflix’s heartfelt, hilarious animated comedy The Mitchells vs. The Machines, the title family’s pet dog Monchi was inspired by events in the life of director Michael Rianda. When Rianda was in middle school, his older sister got a pug and named her Monchichi, after the monkey-like toy from Japan that was popular in the 1980s. Since Monchichi is copyrighted, the name had to be shortened for the film.
“Monchichi was sort of like Monchi in the movie,” Rianda tells Polygon. “Pugs are kind of beautifully tragic creatures. Their eyes are going the wrong way. They can barely breathe. But they’re so full of love and life, and they’re trying so hard, with a little smile on their face.”
He remembers the heartbreak he experienced as a child when Monchichi got lost and he thought he’d never see the pug again. She had been walking outside in the front yard, and somebody picked her up and drove her to Nevada. Luckily, his family eventually learned of Monchichi’s whereabouts and drove to pick her up.
Reuniting with the sweet, weird dog reaffirmed his love. “Picking her up, I was crying, like, ‘Oh my God, what would we do without you?’” he recalls. Those early pet memories seeped into The Mitchells, which makes Monchi a center of the action: the star of a series of homemade short films by the protagonist and point of view character, Katie, and a symbol for how her squabbling family works. He’s also voiced by celebrity pet Doug the Pug, in what Doug’s owners claim is a first for animated film.
Rianda came up in animation as a writer and creative director on the Disney series Gravity Falls, but for his directorial debut, he wanted to create a more personal story, and part of that involved building meaningful dramatic arcs for all the main characters, even Monchi.
“This sounds silly, because it’s a pug. But we wanted every character to have integrity, including the dog,” Rianda says. “And if they’re all sort of getting over something, we wanted him to be able to get over something too, in his small way.”
The film’s human family faces bigger difficulties than Monchi: They’re struggling to rebuild their relationships and learning to understand each other, while for Monchi, the obstacle to overcome is trying to get his eyes to point in the same direction. Eventually, as the plot unfolds, Monchi emerges as the Mitchells’ low-fi secret weapon, and his askew vision and amorphous body become heroic qualities.
Rianda recalls that at a certain point in the process, the story featured a speech where the protagonist, Katie, pointed out all the broken things about Monchi, comparing them to her family’s faults. Though it was an unarguably funny idea, the team felt it didn’t work emotionally, and it was cut.
Still, Rianda feels Monchi represents the way the family finds virtues in their deficiencies. “He is a living embodiment of dysfunction, but he’s still got a good attitude and he’s trying his best,” he says.
To replicate the original Monchichi for the screen, Rianda sent production and character designer Lindsey Olivares photos of his family’s beloved pug and various other photos of real pugs that were chubby, walleyed, or uniquely endearing. Guillermo Martinez, the head of story, drew storyboards of Monchi that were a major inspiration for the character. Olivares also watched pug videos, from the plethora available online, while designing Monchi.
“Video is the next best thing to drawing from life, and helps me get ideas for the specific feeling I want to capture,” Olivares explains. “I love dogs, and pugs are particularly funny, so I tried to capture the weird humor of the character, and balance that with his adorable appeal.”
Olivares streamlined the complexities of pug face-folds and body lines to boost Monchi’s appeal. She also always maintained his plump shape, which resembles a small pig, to make him optimally cute. Monchi’s fur was particularly challenging to animate.
“We simplified the individual hair details to make his coat feel more illustrative,” Olivares says. “But it still needed to feel like fur, so we have areas where we have bolder fur clusters to emphasize featured areas, similar to how you would indicate fur in a drawing. Aside from style, it was also very important [for one of the film’s jokes] that Monchi’s fur color always felt like a loaf of bread! I watched his coloring closely in lighting to make sure he always looked like a tasty loaf of bread.”
Another character designer on the film, Alice Lemma, was in charge of Monchi’s hilarious costumes in Katie’s videos, including the shots of him as a “little gentleman” and as Dog Cop. Other iterations, such as a noir dame Monchi and a dog president Monchi, didn’t make it into the final film.
During production, the animators had fun with these traits because Monchi is so large and squishy. When Rianda visited the studio in Vancouver where all of the 3D animation was conceived (the 2D elements were crafted in Los Angeles), he tried to rent a pug to have the animators study it, but the plan didn’t pan out.
“I’d seen Walt Disney bring in a baby elephant [for animator inspiration], but unlike Walt Disney, I don’t have that much money, and I couldn’t get a pug on a day’s notice,” he recalls, laughing.
Later, when it came time to give characters voices, Rianda made the dog sounds for Monchi himself. But as the team watched the animation reels, they agreed those noises sounded fake. “We basically tried to fill all of the secondary cast roles with people that we really loved,” says Rianda. “We were trying to figure out what to do for the dog, because oftentimes, people hire a voice actor for the animals [in an animated film], but the whole movie, we were trying to make it as authentic as possible. I was like, ‘Can we just get real dog noises?’”
Looking at Instagram, the director came across Doug the Pug, one of the service’s most famous celebridogs, with more than 3.9 million followers. He thought Doug might be perfect to voice Monchi. He wrote an email to Doug’s owners, Rob Chianelli and Leslie Mosier, explaining the importance of the character. They were touched, and agreed to work with Rianda on the film.
“He’s far more famous than I am, and lent authenticity to the movie in a cool way, because pugs have that very specific breathing, panting sound. And if you have a real dog doing it, it’s better than me doing it,” said Rianda.
Rianda still hasn’t had the chance to meet the canine star in person, but he says he’s looking forward to eventually rubbing his belly. Because of the pandemic, Doug recorded his “lines” from home. Since Chianelli is a music producer in Nashville, Tennessee, the family has a small music studio in their basement, with plenty of equipment and microphones. In order to record Doug’s barking, snoring, snorting, and eating, his owners created a little vocal booth that was Doug’s size.
All in all, Mosier believes the animated pug has an inherent charisma similar to Doug’s. “The “Doug doesn’t really know how to bark on command, but he hates watching horses on TV, so we would set up a laptop and put on videos of horses, and he would bark,” Mosier tells Polygon. Doug himself, wearing an elegant dark blue sweater and a rainbow-colored scarf, was also snorting along during the video conversation.
All in all, Mosier believes the animated pug has an inherent charisma similar to Doug’s. “The best part was hearing Monchi bark, and then Doug would bark back. But Doug was barking at himself,” she says.
Doug became a viral sensation on Facebook about five years ago, when Mosier’s mother began buying outfits for him and Mosier started uploading videos and photos of him. Now he’s a big name among pet fanatics, with merchandise and books bearing his image, and two People’s Choice Awards for Favorite Animal Star of 2019 and 2020.
“Every day is really different and really fun, and Doug gets to live like the king that he is,” Mosier says. Doug has a nutritionist and an herbalist. Although he often poses with pizza and other human snacks in photos, his actual diet is much healthier. Blueberries and carrots are his favorite snacks.
Fashion is of essence for the pooch, so a designer in London, who creates custom pug harnesses, makes his fancy outfits for events. The most recent piece is a tux based off the little gentleman’s suit Monchi wears in the movie.
Last December, Mosier and Chianelli launched The Doug the Pug Foundation, which helps children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Sony Pictures Animation partnered with the foundation and donated $10,000 in celebration of the release of the movie. All of the success, Mosier believes, comes from people’s adoration for the chunky breed.
“Pugs are human-like. They’re extremely expressive, and they have something about them that is just funny and happy no matter what. You can’t look at a pug and not smile,” she says. “The best part of The Mitchells vs. The Machines is seeing how Monchi brings so much light to the family and is always the comedic relief. Pugs are the best.”