Next Gen is a beautiful, computer-animated film from Netflix that is a direct challenge to the uber-powers of Pixar that combines slick animation, top-notch storytelling, and a bit of a punk rock attitude.
The opening minute or two is a brilliant sleight-of-hand choice by directors Kevin R. Adams and Joe Ksander. It all starts like a saccharine family cartoon and gives the sense this is going to be a Pixar clone before it switches gear with a pop-punk track from composers Alexis and Sam. From then on, this story takes on a life of its own that feels very Pixar but certainly has it’s own unique attitude. If Pixar’s main competitor is Dreamworks, then Netflix with Next Gen nestles into a sliver of space somewhere between the two.
“One in every home!”
As the story goes, young, sweet Mai grows up to be an angsty, rebellious teenager who wants nothing to do with all the robots that have infested the world. In Next Gen, just about everything is a robot, reminiscent of Futurama. Hairbrushes, cars, refrigerators, and toothbrushes are all robots, maniacally trying to do their best job whether humans like it or not. Mai doesn’t like it at all, while her mother, Molly (Constance Wu) loves all the tech.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the current typical paradigm that kids are lost in tech and parents can’t connect. It seems, in this world, tech-obsessed millennials grew up to be tech-obsessed adults (arguably, today’s Gen Xers, too), and their children want nothing to do with it. Well, Mai, anyway. Most other kids love it all too which further disconnects our feisty hero from those around her.
As we get to know Mai, we come to meet Justin Pin (Jason Sudeikis) a Steve Jobs-like tech giant who produces the Q-Bot, a two-foot-tall AI assistant that everyone has; like the cellphone of this future world. Pin unveils the latest Q-Bot and gives one to every audience member at the keynote. Later, Pin declares he wants “One in every home.” Pin says this to Dr. Tanner Rice (David Cross) the designer of the Q-Bot (“The Woz” to Pin’s Steve Jobs). The context in which Pin delivers this line makes a big difference to the story moving forward.
“I hate robots!”
During the keynote, Mai gets in a bit of trouble and during a chase stumbles upon Dr. Tanner’s secret laboratory where Project 77, a prototype robot, is housed. Mai interacts with Project 77 but quickly runs away since she doesn’t like robots to begin with. However, Mai leaves behind her backpack which Project 77 now wants to return at all costs. And the intro to Project 77 as a character, the AI’s determination and, um, onboard skillset is fantastic.
There’s no doubt that Netflix’s run at original films has been a years-long streak of hits and misses. However, that’s in part due to growing pains. Here, Netflix has scored a big win, not only visually but narratively. The film’s characters are instantly memorable because, in part, they lovingly borrow from great films from before (what story doesn’t?), but they also do the work early on to establish their world, it’s culture, people, and the robots in it.
“…Next Gen delivers.”
Next Gen is a tightly put together film from start to finish, with no forced jokes or constant barrage of humor that appears in a lot of movies of this ilk (and even too many live-action films). Additionally, Next Gen doesn’t seem entirely aimed at children but teenagers with continuous bleeps of profanity and even the death of a non-robot. Still, none of it happens gratuitously. Next Gen stays within the realm of family-friendly animated fare.
The film also ends with a spectacular battle sequence that’s as over-the-top and explosion-y as any action film fan could want. To be fair, it might be a bit long for some, but if you’re hooked into the story by that point, you’ll likely find some tears jerked out of your eye-holes while all the eye-candy is happening.
It’s easy to recommend Next Gen to just about anyone. The animations are exquisite; on the level of the best stuff out there. The pacing is about as good as it gets as the movie feels wonderfully balanced with no suddenly sluggish points for some unnecessary side story or rushed story points. Mai’s emotional journey is as fun to watch as are all the action spectacles that Next Gen joyfully delivers. Next Gen is the kind of film that Netflix certainly needs more of and the kind of film that will keep them on top of the streaming service mountain.