Nothing you haven’t seen before, but a great cast, some novel ideas and an earnest attitude make Next Gen solid family entertainment.
There’s a story behind Next Gen, which debuted on Netflix today. The Chinese-Canadian co-production by directors Kevin Adams and Joe Ksander was picked up at Cannes by Netflix for $30 million, in a kind of distribution coup that is becoming increasingly common in a generally risk-averse industry. Netflix roll into film festivals, jangle their bottomless pockets, and walk off with the projects that most studios don’t want. Which is good for everyone involved, really. And it’s especially good in the case of Next Gen, an action-heavy children’s animation that’s surprisingly quite a lot of fun.
It was financed by the Chinese multimedia company Baozou and made by Toronto-based Tangent Animation, and the story, based on a comic by artist Wang Nima, concerns a punkish purple-haired 12-year-old, Mai (Charlyne Yi), befriending a runaway robot prototype known as 7723 (John Krasinski, fresh from last weekend’s successful release of Jack Ryan.)
Mai’s the typical teenage tearaway; bullied at school, overlooked by her aloof mother (Constance Wu, late of Crazy Rich Asians), and resentful of an increasingly-automated retro-futurist utopia where robots churned out by an Apple-esque tech corporation are sucking the humanity from everyday life. It’s a bit like watching Blade Runner on mescaline.
The company’s CEO is a charismatic celebrity hipster rather predictably bent on world domination, and played by Jason Sudeikis complete with a top-knot and sandals. He’s almost as detestable here as he was in Colossal, although admittedly the hair has something to do with it.
But Next Gen isn’t really about any of this stuff. It’s a story about two characters learning to live with themselves and each other, and despite largely being about Mai, all of the film’s novelty comes from 7723, a weaponised escapee who fled a life of servitude and is discovering the concepts of free will, friendship and freedom. And as horribly hokey as that sounds written down, Next Gen consistently presents these ideas in novel, compelling ways.
See, 7723 is clever; designed to learn from humans and emulate their morality, so the more time he spends with Mai, the less robotic he becomes. His personality evolves from childlike naïveté and innocence to diplomatic do-gooderism, basically lapping Mai’s emotional development so that he can explain to her why she shouldn’t just use his laser blasters to terrify her bullies and smash up all their robots. And this arc is reflected in everything from 7723’s visual design – he develops additional, more expressive features as he learns – to Krasinki’s voice, which starts out as being almost unrecognisably computerised but eventually morphs into Jim from The Office.
The catch, thanks to a technical fault, is that in order to stay online 7723 has to periodically erase his memories. And of course Mai thinks this is easy – ideal, even. She suggests just wiping all his recollections of her acting out or forcing him to do crazy stuff; to her, having spent most of her life being bullied and bitter, being able to pick and choose which memories you retained would be the perfect solution. But the more 7723 accumulates, the less he wants to dispose of them, and he starts shutting down essential systems instead – becoming less and less like a robot, as Mai is forced to value him more and more as friend rather than a useful tool or an intimidating pet sidekick.
These are the dual arcs at the heart of Next Gen, and even though I should despise something this heavy-handed, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t buy into it completely. It occurs to me that there’s a certain type of kid who will find something in this film that they desperately need, and who might, just by watching it, come to learn something that everyone needs to: That our memories are what make us, and that, good or bad, we wouldn’t be us without them. And being us is all we can be.