Apple’s latest product announcement made all the headlines yesterday. What if it had been made in a ginormous stadium, not a mere auditorium? What if they had promised a free robot butler to everyone in attendance? And what if all of those robots were programmed to eventually turn on their humans?
Welcome to the computer-animated world of Next Gen, a future of where even our toothbrushes and doors are robots, and the key to saving the world is mending a young girl’s broken heart.
There are no shortage of “a boy and his robot” movies. In most of them, the “robot” is just a stand-in for a lost parent, an elaborate coping mechanism helping a sad child deal with their grief. In that way, Netflix’s new film Next Gen is no different. Shades of Iron Giant, Terminator 2, and especially Big Hero 6 abound. Heck, there’s also a fair bit of E.T. in here even though that’s a “boy and his alien” movie.
However, Next Gen flips the gender in this familiar tale, giving us a girl and her robot, and goes to slightly darker places than usual. For example, there’s a “fun” montage where when you boil down what’s actually happening you realize the girl has turned the robot into her own personal killing machine (if it helps, he’s just dismantling other robots, not murdering humans). By the end, you might just find yourself crying as little Mai and her metaphorical robot dad face their biggest challenge together: life.
I, um, I apologize for that last line. So, so sappy. I don’t know what came over me. I’m usually too cynical for tripe like that, but this lovely family film has clearly warmed my cold heart.
Adapted from Wang Nima’s manga 7723, this Chinese-American co-production opens on Mai Sui (Charlyne Yi) as a bubbly, purple-haired little girl who loves her pet dog Momo (Michael Pena, doing his best Kevin Hart impression) about as much she loves placing unicorn stickers on everything. However, her parents – mother Mary, voiced by Constance Wu, and a father whose name we never learn – constantly argue, leading her father to eventually leave the family. This launches Mai into years of youthful rebellion, as indicated by the opening credits montage set to a kid’s movie version of punk rock (might I also add, get off my lawn).
When we rejoin her, she’s a teenager with no friends and an emotionally unavailable mother. They live in an undefined future time of extreme automation, self-driving cars, robot butlers, and even ultra-determined robot toothbrushes who wield battle with toothpaste-resistant little kids like something out of a kung-fu movie. Heck, even fence doors are robots now, celebrating their every opening and closing with a joyful “Here I go!”
The various talking gadgets usually speak with the voice of their creator, Dr. Tanner Rice (David Cross), the clear Wozniack to Justin Pin’s (Jason Sudeikis, smarmy as ever) Jobs. Mai’s mother drags her to Pin’s latest product announcement, which takes place in a massive stadium (the natural endpoint for Apple announcements). We quickly gather that contrary to generational norms it is Mary, not Mai, who is obsessed with technology. In fact, Mai’s just about the only person in the film’s little universe who hasn’t embraced society’s new robot overlords.
As we’ll later see, that’s because Mary turned to robots to fill the hole in her life, which unfortunately left Mai on her own and increasingly resentful of those dang robots. However, it also just works on a basic storytelling level where of course the rebellious teenage protagonist would feel compelled to reject that thing everyone loves.
So, when she breaks away from her mother at the stadium and bumps into a secret, experimental new robot simply named 7723 (who both looks and sounds a lot like Baymax, voiced quite warmly by John Krasinski) she’s unimpressed. She also has no idea he’s an imperfect prototype, deficient in internal storage space and constantly having to delete old memories – or data files – to continue operating. But since Mai’s the first person 7723 ever sees she becomes his foundational memory. Naturally, he follows her home. She tries to send him away, but once he proves useful to her, the pair become quick friends.
What sets it apart
That’s where Next Gen manages to go slightly darker than some of its predecessors. Rather than serve as a simple metaphorical bonding of a lonely child and a surrogate parent, 7723 starts out as Mai’s unwitting enabler. He’s the destructive tool for Mai’s outrage – scaring school bullies, settling old scores, decimating robots around the city just for the heck of it. He’s just too naive to realize it. Once he does and pushes back on her violent impulses, she rejects him.
By that point, however, their various rampages have made the news, drawing the attention of the possibly nefarious Pin and meekly benevolent Dr. Rice and thus settling up a looming showdown.
Yet, for all the fireworks and satisfying action set pieces that follow the emotional core remains the same. 7723 and Mai work to fix each other and realize that some memories are too important to forget, no matter how painful.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Far better than the mere Big Hero 6 rip-off you might be expecting. While these distinctions matter less and less these days, this is good enough to be playing in theaters. Instead, it’s on Netflix for all to enjoy whenever you want.
- Next Gen has a very clever evolution of the Disney talking pet trope whereby only 7723 can understand Momo since his computer algorithm translates his barks. Once we’ve kind of forgotten about that, there’s a cute scene where Momo is trying to talk to Mai but all she hears is a lot of barking. 7723 isn’t around to translate.
- Speaking of which, parents should know although Next Gen is almost entirely family friendly there is a running joke about Momo being surprisingly foul-mouthed. They just bleep out all of the curse words. Do with that what you will.
- A future where almost all robots sound like David Cross must be Sorry to Bother You’s worst nightmare since there his voice was used as the joking embodiment of the perfect “white voice.”
- Someone clearly had some fun with the credits. Here’s the disclaimer they threw in at the very, very end:
“No robots were harmed in the making of this film. The filmmakers do not believe robots are evil. They are good. Definitely good. Super super good. In fact, when the robot overlords take over we will be the first in line to bow at their benevolent feet. Or wheels – or whatever.”
What about you? Have you watched Next Gen? Been side-eyeing it on Netflix and afraid to pull the trigger? Or does all of this just make you want to go re-watch Iron Giant and/or Big Hero 6? Let me know in the comments.