If you combine the bright futurism of Big Hero 6 with the slightly darker cautionary tale elements of WALL-E, you might end up with something like Next Gen, a Netflix original animated feature now available for streaming. The movie mixes in a story of coping with loss with science fiction and mild social commentary right before it turns into an action film at the very end, which can make it a somewhat disjointed experience but one that’s still worth taking for a spin around the block.
Next Gen centers on Mai, a angry teenage girl living with her single mother in an unnamed metropolis 15 minutes in the future, where robots handle nearly all of the mundane daily tasks of life and leave people to do little but pursue leisure in increasingly distracted and disconnected ways (social commentary that feels a little underdeveloped and softened from something more biting and meaningful). Mai’s anger centers around her father, who left the family when Mai was young and then died before a reconciliation was possible (and the depiction of this event and its impact on Mai under the opening credits is one of the most successful parts of the movie). The anger colors all her relationships, and seems especially directed towards all the robotic helpers that surround them. A trip to the headquarters of iQ Robotics (led by the charismatic Justin Pin) leads Mai to discover a strange new robot hidden away in a secret corner of the building. The robot, a seeming blank slate with no obvious job, imprints on Mai and follows her home, resulting in an odd-couple relationship that grows more intriguing when the robot reveals a staggering cache of weaponry at its disposal. What begins as teenage revenge fantasy lashing out soon turns much darker as the robot’s purpose and its link to iQ Robotics’ newest product is slowly revealed.
The lead human characters of Next Gen and Big Hero 6 share a defining grief that they must learn how to cope with as their movies unfold, but Hiro’s single-minded focus on catching the man who killed his brother is traded for Mai’s unfocused anger that’s directed at everything around her. This does make her a slightly less sympathetic character than Hiro at the outset, but the script and Charlyne Yi’s dynamic vocal performance as Mai keep her from becoming unlikable. John Krasinski lends the robot a little bit of sweetness and humanity, which fits the way robots function in Next Gen‘s world. Interestingly, Mai doesn’t bother giving him a name, while the credits dub him “Project 77” based on a throwaway line much earlier in the movie. This is one of the more interesting nuances of their relationship, demonstrating that she doesn’t think of it as anything more than a tool initially and that it doesn’t have enough true humanity to be bothered by this. It also benefits from a charming character design that centers on very large eyes and an outsized upper body supported by tiny little legs.
Next Gen follows in the footsteps of many science fiction movies by tasking its robot lead to be indirect commentary on the nature of being human. Its memory core is damaged during its departure from iQ Robotics, limiting its capacity to retain memories for risk of a full system failure. This forces it into a nightly ritual where it has to choose which of the day’s memories to retain and which to delete, which is an interesting mechanism to chronicle the growing friendship between the two in a way that doesn’t give the robot too much of a Pinocchio complex. We can understand why Mai grows more attached to her mechanical friend, despite her single-minded resistance to interacting with robots at all. The plot device of the robot’s limited memory capacity manages to be something we can understand and project human feelings and sentiments on to, while ensuring that the robot remains a machine. It’s similar to the way Big Hero 6‘s Baymax feels much like a GPS repeating canned phrases that humans (both us and in the movie) can project intention and sentiment. The robots don’t become human as much as people gain sympathy for the machine. Next Gen manages to stretch this parallel far further than one might think at first blush, though it’s also not much of a surprise that this particular Chekhov’s gun figures prominently in the movie’s final act.
Unfortunately, Next Gen suffers from a slightly padded second act, after Mai meets her robot friend but before the revelation of more sinister machinations at work. The pacing in this section is slightly off, making the development of the girl-and-her-robot friendship drag a bit too long while the secondary plot engine gets slightly short shrift. This means that the action-packed third act feels a bit out of place, no matter how exciting and emotionally satisfying it is. While Big Hero 6 followed superhero movie tropes pretty consistently for the duration, Next Gen feels more like a relationship movie right up to the point when it suddenly isn’t. The transition is a little jarring, and I’d even argue that the big action sequence that closes the movie runs a bit too long. Still, it is quite successful at incorporating many of the plot threads that have been dropped along the way, and I admit I might feel differently about the movie on a re-watch.
The fact that I look forward to re-watching Next Gen probably says much about its quality, regardless of whatever quibbles I might have with it. It might not be as groundbreaking as I think it aspired to be, but winning performances and solid fundamentals make it an appealing overall package.
Next Gen is available for streaming now on Netflix.