Principal Cast : John Krasinski, Charlyne Yi, Jason Sudeikis, Michael Pena, David Cross, Constance Wu, Kiana Lede, Anna Akana, Kitana Turnbull, Jet Jurgensmeyer.
Synopsis: A friendship with a top-secret robot turns a lonely girl’s life into a thrilling adventure as they take on bullies, evil bots and a scheming madman.
What do you get if you mix one part Wall-E, one part Big Hero 6, a smattering of The Iron Giant and a fair dollop of I Robot? The answer: this bizarre yet charming animated movie from Netflix, Next Gen. Told with some truly sublime animation, a compelling roster of characters and a sense of widescreen action, Next Gen tonally wobbles a touch in achieving its aim but manages to remain engaging and enthused throughout. It’s the kind of film with plenty of heartfelt messages and a child-friendly thematic core that feels more aimed at adults than its pleasantly bright animation would assume, and I get the sense that young children coming in for Baymax-lite flavours will feel somewhat disappointed (if not bored), but Next Gen is a worthy companion piece to non-Disney fare such as Astro Boy in world-building and drawing in unique and complex character archetypes.
The future, a utopian city of Grainland, where intelligent robots are a ubiquitous feature of society: every whim, need and desire is catered for by the supply of Q-Bots, robotic servants distributed by slick salesman and entrepreneur Justin Pin (Jason Sudeikis). Pin is in the midst of releasing his latest upgrade of the Q-Bot, the Gen 6, although his motivations are purely Machiavellian. His associate, scientist and robotic engineer Dr Tanner Rice (David Cross) has a plan to thwart Pin’s plan by creating the first of a prototype “super robot”, code-named 7723 (voice of John Krasinski), only the robot is accidentally activated by sullen teen technophobe Mai Su (Charlyne Yi), who hates robots with a passion since her father left and her mother (Constance Wu) emotionally disconnected from her. As 7723 befriends Mai and the pair engage in casual destruction of other robots, Pin unleashes his devious plan that threatens to destroy humanity utterly, with Mai’s mother in harms way.
Next Gen is a film of mixed messages. In one sense, it’s a film trying to be a darker, adult-oriented effort displaying depth of conceptual emotional weight and a sense of fraught implacable potential within its tech-centric landscapes. The entire world of Next Gen is built around the premise that humans are basically lazy as shit, and robots have usurped all our basic needs by becoming entrenched within our lives. This sense of disconnect is none more prevalent than in the central character of Mai Su, who has lost both her father (he walked out on the family in an early scene) and mother, who has sunk into a love of technology to replace her husband, leaving Mai Su essentially isolated in a world she detests. She finds friendship with an “Iron Giant” of her own, 7723, who grows from a simplistic creation of destruction into a heartfelt symbol of loss and payback. The sequences in which Mai contemplates her life without a father and her growing distaste for technology at the retreat of humanity (and there are a few) lean into seriousness a lot for a film marketed to kids, so adult viewers may have to answer some difficult questions or console some upset youngsters, but I admire Next Gen for tackling these kinds of real-world themes with honesty and truth.
The alternative tone Next Gen takes is a weird comedic fantasy-lite vibe, in which 7723, suffering from internal memory issues, has to choose between keeping memories of Mai and his relationship or his core weapons program systems; it’s very much like Iron Giant’s “you don’t have to be a gun” motif, so much so that 7723 spends a lot of the film’s second act trying to justify not using his admittedly awesome looking weaponry. Mai’s little dog, voiced by Michael Pena in a hilariously censored filthy string of epithets and gangsta-talk, is the film’s comedic sidekick throughout, and draws plenty of laughs for adult viewers filling in the curse-word “bleeps” the film uses to maximise laughs. The film’s climactic combat sequence (yes, there’s explosions and plentiful laser-play in which life lessons are leaned and sacrifices made) is a slam-bang Man Of Steel-esque destruction blitzkrieg, although unlike Zack Snyder’s comic book mayhem this film comes with an emotional core to it that strengthens the stakes and ensures we’re riding every punch, blast and crash.
So it’s a film trying to be both seriously adult and childlike with wonder, and never quite striking the perfect balance. That’s not to say it’s a poorer film for it, only a confused effort here and there – my gran would call it “spotty”, not quite one thing entirely in trying to be everything – but for sheer breadth of animation, development, design and execution there’s few animated films I’ve seen that do what Next Gen achieves. The design of the world of Grainland feels very much like that of the Axiom in Wall-E, especially the police and security unit robots, who bear a remarkable resemblance to similar robots from Pixar’s classic story. The cute little Q-Bots harbour a sinister secret, but are utterly charming, while the various appliances and utilities from the tech-infused world feel both possible and fanciful simultaneously. The design of Jason Pin’s robotic bodyguard, the imposing, monolithic Ares, is truly frightening, and at times I think little kids will find this movie a bit scary. The nice little mirror between Justin Pin’s Steve Jobs’ archetype and Dr Tanner’s Steve Wozniak-esque science dude is something kids won’t spot but adults may smile at, knowingly.
There’s a lot to Next Gen that’s brilliant. The voice cast is spot on (Krasinski’s 7723 and Yi’s effective work on Mui are the anchors here), the animation is exquisite (seriously, find me a better looking film in 2018, I’ll wait) and the design, music and execution are enchanting throughout (although whatever song that was during the opening credits was legitimately hideous!); Next Gen is a film I hope finds a niche viewing audience and goes on to become a cult classic, if it isn’t a phenomenon. It’s a deserving time filler of substantive emotional grist, mixed with evocative imagery and a rock-solid heart to its pulsating friendship motif. A cool little film, (and with caveats in place) Next Gen is gen-uinely good.