REVIEW: Next Gen (2018)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of Netflix’s Next Gen — Directed by Kevin R. Adams & Joe Ksander.

You may be surprised when the first acting credit that pops on the screen in the relatively unpromoted Netflix animated film Next Gen is that of actor-director John Krasinski. At the very least, I was surprised to see names like Krasinski’s, but also other actors like Jason Sudeikis and Michael Peña. You start to ask yourself how this animated movie had managed to go relatively unnoticed with those names attached to it, and then you hope that you’ve found a new hidden gem. Next Gen isn’t quite that good, but I did enjoy it for what it was.

Netflix paid a reported $30 million for the worldwide distribution rights to Adams and Ksander’s Next Gen, which is based on an online comic, 7723, created by Wang Nima. The film takes place in a futuristic world where robot appliances are common in every household and where the public feels indebted to the wickedly smart innovators that gave them all of this.

The announcement of a new robot is here much, much bigger than the announcement of a new iPhone. The face of the corporation behind the creation of these robots is Justin Pin (voiced by Jason Sudeikis), who feels like a mixture of the fictional character Tony Stark as popularized by Robert Downey, Jr. and of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. This is a charismatic, smart, and business-savvy individual, who has people around the world frothing at the mouth to get the newest robot.

One of these people is Molly Su (voiced by Constance Wu), and, in one of the film’s first scenes, she has brought her rebellious teenage daughter, Mai (voiced by Charlyne Yi), with her to attend the public press conference whereat Pin plans to announce the newest version of the friendly ‘Q-bot.’

But Mai isn’t so excited, and, after she has become distracted, she finds herself hiding from security robots. Where is she hiding? Oh, well, she happens to have found the location of a secret project — a large and powerful robot (voiced by John Krasinski) with a wide variety of weapons built into his system. When she accidentally activates it and introduces herself, the robot becomes enamored with her, and it decides to follow and protect Mai on ‘a deep emotional journey’ initially unbeknownst to the robot’s creators.

One of the first things that you will recognize with Next Gen is that it has ‘borrowed’ essential plot elements from other iconic animated films. Disney’s Big Hero 6 is one of the clearest ‘inspirations,’ as is Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. On top of all of that you can also easily pick up on some other inspirations, some of which are expressed via clear visual references to iconic science fiction films like Blade Runner and Predator.

Next Gen doesn’t reach the heights of the aforementioned animated films, but it does have something fairly interesting about it that sets it apart. Almost immediately, the film lets you know what kind of audience it is going for. After a short introductory scene where Mai’s father leaves his family, all of a sudden, rock music starts and kicks us into the film’s title sequence. The film lets you know that this is a film viewed from the perspective of an angry teen with a chip on her shoulder.

Next Gen really tries to be the edgy teen animated movie alternative. In the film, one character is disintegrated, and more than one young female character orders robots to do harmful things to other humans. Mai stands out from the rest of the world present in this film. She is an angry young woman with purple hair, who doesn’t want anything to do with robots, and she exists in what, in moments, looks like a cheery and bright version of Blade Runner.

Much like how The Lego Movie‘s happy and silly ‘Everything is Awesome’ attitude is really meant to function as support for the film’s anti-corporate theme, Next Gen also lets us know that corporations and brands are phony, fake, and not everything they pretend to be.

For a large chunk of the film, Constance Wu’s character seemed to disappear and, in retrospect, I realize that absence may be for the purpose of underlining how corporations have made the public dependent on the products to such an extent that normal people neglect to take care of their families. Next Gen is a film about the dangers of brand loyalty. Mind you, it isn’t integrated as seamlessly as it was in The Lego Movie.

I thought that another major part of the story was much more compelling. In the film, they present us with this idea that Krasinski’s robot has to delete its memories or else it will shut down. This idea about deleting select memories is actually a pretty neat thematic concept for Next Gen, because it relates to Mai wanting to forget about her father having left her and her mother. One of the great lessons of this film could have been that each memory teaches us something about ourselves and are valuable even though they hurt, but I don’t think the film completely gets that across to the viewers.

I mentioned that the film really wants to be an edgy and alternative animated movie and that notion really comes across well in its action sequences. There is a pretty impressive freeway chase early on in the film complete with laser cannons and mass destruction. In another scene, we see multiple robot fall to their destruction in slow motion. This is an action-heavy animated film with explosions and deaths — this isn’t your younger sibling’s animated movie, so to speak. On top of all of that there is also a fight with an electric toothbrush, which I thought was ridiculous and absolutely hilarious.

“Four out of five dentists recommend me.”

The most memorable voice performance in the film comes from Michael Peña, who voices Mai’s dog — it makes sense in the film. Peña is hilarious as an angry and impulsive bulldog. Krasinski, on the other hand, doesn’t work as well. The problem isn’t that he gives a bad voice performance — he’s fine. However, I do think his character’s voice is too human and natural for the robot. His voice, as it is, doesn’t quite fit with the character, in my opinion.

Some of my other notes include the idea that I thought the film rushed the character relationship between Mai and Krasinski’s robot from one extreme to the next — their bonding scenes, generally, needed more time to breathe. I also thought there was some forced conflict in the film’s final act.

I really enjoyed Next Gen‘s ‘edgier’ tone, but it loses a lot of points for being fairly derivative. The visual references can be nice touches — look out for an origami unicorn — but that does not let you get away with having some very familiar plot elements that certainly seemed to have been stolen from other, better films.

Next Gen is a predictable and extremely derivative animated film, but I did, admittedly, end up thinking that it was much more entertaining than it had any right to be. I really like that it seems tailor-made for that edgy teen audience, and I loved its surprisingly strong visuals. Next Gen is, in spite of its bland title and unoriginal story, pretty solid animated entertainment, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the films it rips off.

6.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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