Film

Netflix finally does something (mostly) right with “Next Gen”

As a weird hybrid of Big Hero 6, A Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, Wall-E and The Iron Giant with a potty-mouthed dog thrown into the mix for good measure, there is absolutely no reason why Next Genfinanced by the Chinese studio Baozuo Manhua,which has no track record of making animated feature films and produced by the Canadian company Tangent Animation. Netflix only bought the distribution rights; considering their animated content is all over the place; I can’t imagine what it would have been like had they been more involved.*

But, I found it to be one of the most entertaining animated pieces I’ve ever seen.

It’s not necessarily the most well-written; there’s plenty of room for improvement when it comes to pacing and themes but it’s highly entertaining.

I mean who wouldn’t want to watch a movie where a teenage girl her secret robot friend and potty-mouthed dog defeating an CEO with evil ambitions set to pop-punk music in a future semi-dystopian China?

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Mai and Momo

Next Gen’s girl hero is Mai Su. Mai is a teenager who feels unloved at home; her father died when she was young and her mother, in order to cope, turned to robots for company. School isn’t much better; Mai gets beaten up by her bullies’ bots and is annoyed by the constant presence of robots everywhere in society, including as doors and instant noodle containers. She’s desperate for some kind of connection.

Pulling off this kind of character and having them be likeable, is really hard to pull off well. Typically, they come off as annoying, over-dramatic or just…really in the wrong. But, no Mai. I found her to be really relatable and likeable. I never stopped rooting for her

At a robotics convention, Mai becomes friends with 7723, a secret robot created by IQ Robotics co-founder Dr. Tanner Rice. 7723 leaves his lab to return Mai’s backpack, leaving Rice in a very bad position. You see, 7723 was created to stop Justin Pin, the other founder of the company, who has plans of the world domination sort so Rice must find him before it’s too late.

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7723 and Mai meet

Mai and 7723 bond; mostly by destroying other robots. Mai finds this cathartic and 7723 doesn’t mind. He’s preoccupied with keeping his memories of Mai; his storage is damaged which means every night he has to go through his memories and decide which ones are worth keeping.

 

After an incident where Mai tries to goad him into almost murdering one of her bullies, 7723 deletes his weapons system as a way to prevent him hurting anyone and to keep more memories.

Of course, that’s when he happens to need his defenses the most. Pin’s plans are revealed and 7723 needs to stop Justin and his giant, hulking robot Ares from completing their plans to kill all humans.

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Rice tries to talk Pin out of genocide.

There’s a twist here that I won’t reveal, but it was really good. It had the perfect balance between foreshadowing and dramatic tension, which made the reveal was extremely satisfying, in that I was able to predict it and but it was still surprising, and I enjoyed the way it was revealed.

This leaves 7723 to make a choice: reboot himself and lose all his memories of Mai in order to defeat the bad guy or keep his memories and risk the safety of humanity. This leads to one of the most emotional scenes of the entire film as we see 7723’s memories disappear.

Big hologram-like images of Mai appear in background for the briefest instant before vanishing. The whole scene is set to a song with very little vocal accompaniment.  Unlike a lot of movies nowadays, the movie spends quite a bit of time on the aftermath of his sacrifice, I genuinely was unsure whether 7723 was going to survive.

As a whole it’s actually a rather good, emotionally satisfying story. I really enjoyed it.

There is no real reason for Momo, Mai’s dog, to be able to talk (or be understood by 7723) And definitely no reason for him to curse every other word (censored by 7723’s profanity filter). The movie could eliminate him entirely and it would still work; but it’s definitely much better having him in the movie. Tone-wise, it works perfectly. It literally comes out of nowhere in the movie, but I was perfectly willing to along with it.

The animation stands out in comparison to other animated Netflix originals, in that it’s actually good. The movement is fluid; characters and vehicles in the background are constantly moving, and the expressions are great. There’s a lot of attention paid to the landscapes and background. And it doesn’t try to be hyper-realistic like a lot of other CG animation. It has its own style.

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The Robotics convention

The character designs aren’t generic, but I’m able to tell so much about each character’s personality. It’s colorful but not in your face. While the robotic designs aren’t unique, they’re nice to look at, and they fit in with the overall aesthetic of the film.

The voice acting and written dialogue is snappy, with hints at meta-textual humor and self-awareness of their own flaws without falling into parody territory.

The soundtrack is great; I love pop-punk music. It’s one of my favorite genres and this one introduced me to a lot of good artists. By far my favorite original song on the track was “Noodle Punk,” which is an in-universe jingle made given a pop-punk makeover.

The soundtrack also has a couple of song’s by last year’s America’s Got Talent winner Grace VanderWaal, which covers some of the more emotional moments because, unfortunately, you can’t set a moment where a young girl tries to deal with her loneliness and disconnection from the world to most of Panic! At the Disco’s discography.

And Justin Pin is definitely one of the best animated villains I’ve come across this year. He manages to balance the fine line between being dramatic and seriously threatening. His theatricality isn’t played for humor, beyond one or two moments. The movie makes it clear from the beginning that he’s a threat.

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Justin Pin.

He has the “cool, contemporary Tech CEO” aesthetic down, rather than the “eccentric, Willy Wonka-type” personality which is a very refreshing take, in my opinion. Pin gets his way through threats and emotional manipulation. He’s willing to do the dirty work himself; he doesn’t have henchmen or lackeys who can ruin his plan. His only partner is a very scary robot, Ares, who plays a pretty major role in the film, which makes him very effective.

And then there are the movie’s weaknesses. For starters, the pacing is all over place; the plot is trying to go in too many directions at once. There are several montages in the film, which just seems like a lot. There probably shouldn’t be more than one musical montage per movie, maybe two. But this one has at least three. Otherwise, you need to rethink the story you’re telling.

On their own, the montages are actually really good. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the way they’re made. There’s just too many, which makes for an awkward and messy movie.

The way the movie tries to present its themes and message is just…terrible. I’ve watched the film in its entirety twice, then my favorite scenes randomly and I’m still not sure what the movie is trying to say.

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Mai eating dinner. (How it kind of feels to have so many montages)

 

A lot of ideas get tossed around and discussed. The main contenders for the main theme are: technology is no replacement for genuine human interaction and affection, you shouldn’t hold so tightly onto the past or memories as it’s more important to spend time with people you love, something about a person’s flaws being their greatest strengths or how one should not strive for perfection and something about the importance of using communication to solve your issues rather than violence.

There’s just not enough focus on any of these ideas. They all get their moment at one time or another, but the film really should have picked one or two (maybe three if you could tie the themes of human interaction and the importance of communication together closely enough) rather than half a dozen.

I left the movie feeling entertained but wasn’t sure what I was supposed to take away it, despite knowing it was trying to tell me something.

My guess this is due to the transition to the big screen; the movie is based on the Chinese comic 7723 by Wang Nima. Unfortunately, it’s only available in China, so I don’t know how much the two stories differ. All the different themes probably work better when they’re spread out more.

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A drawing from 7723. Baozuo Manhua also publishes comics, and was heavily inspired by rage comics,

Nima also wrote the story for the film and is the founder of Baozuo Manhua, so I imagine he had a lot of input on how the movie turned out.

But in the end, I think the pros far outweigh the cons; as long as you aren’t looking for a movie with a deep, deep message and you are looking for something off-the-wall, with great action sequences, funny dialogue, heartwarming and entertaining character interactions, and just some truly awesome animation then you’ll enjoy this movie. It’s definitely one of the best original films Netflix has to offer.

And considering this is Nima’s first animated production and the directorial debut Kevin R. Adams and Joe Ksander, I’d say they did a pretty awesome job (and worth the $30 million Netflix paid, I kid you not) and I hope to see more from them in future as in a sequel or maybe a spin-off television series?

That’s the scoop!

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Score: 9/10

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Information

Length: 104 minutes

Rating: TV-PG

Available: Netflix Exclusive

Directors/Writers: Kevin R. Adams, Joe Ksander

Producers: Jeff Bell, Patricia Hicks, Charlene Logan Kelly, Yangbin Lu, John Morch, Ken Zorniak

Story By: Wang Nima

Voice Actors (English dub):John Krasinski, Charlyne Yi, Jason Sudeikis, Michael Peña, David Cross, Constance Wu

(Edit: This post originally said that the film was a Netflix original. Netflix only owns the distribution rights to the film, (except in China). The title will remain the same as I still believe that Netflix did something right by buying the rights.)

 

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