One certainly can’t fault the Netflix animated sci-fi feature “Next Gen” for playing it safe or taking its foot off the accelerator.
There’s a LOT going on in this ambitious, visually impressive, sometimes entertaining but ultimately overstuffed and overlong adventure.
At times it plays like an uplifting children’s movie, with characters delivering sincere but simplistic messages about the importance of loyalty and friendship and holding onto one’s memories.
On other occasions, it’s a sly comedy and social satire.
Then we’re getting an overly familiar cautionary tale about robots with artificial intelligence evolving from helpful, subservient companions to ruthless killing machines bent on destroying the weak human race and taking over the world.
But wait, now we’re getting a storyline with more than a passing similarity to the plot of “Big Hero 6,” and then there’s a little bit of a “Wall-E” thing going on, and a translation of dog barks like in “Up,” and wow, here’s an outer-space duel with light sabers — and hey, a character just crafted an origami unicorn, I guess to remind us of how great “Blade Runner” was!
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It’s a chore just to keep up with all the shifts in tone, and by the time “Next Gen” reaches the finish line, we’re more exhausted than exhilarated.
Netflix shelled out $30 million for the worldwide distribution rights (excluding China) for this English-language film based on the comic “7723,” by Wang Nima. It’s a beautiful-looking film, with nifty touches, e.g., sunlight shooting through skyscraper-created canyons at the end of the day, but it’s not child-friendly enough to be a pure kids’ film, and it’s not edgy enough to appeal to older adolescents or comic-crazed adults.
Charlyne Yi brings great energy and likability to her voice performance as Mai, a rebellious and lonely teen with purple hair and a giant chip on her shoulder. Ever since Mai’s father walked out on the family when Mai was just a small child, her mother Molly (Constance Wu) has been more emotionally invested in the latest technology, in particular the companion robots known as Q-bots, than her own child.
As Molly says to Mai after Mai has endured a particularly rough day and feels more ostracized than ever: “You’re never alone when you’ve got a Q-bot!”
The world of “Next Gen” is the usual futuristic movie world (animated or live action).
Humans co-exist with flying and motorized droids that talk like humans. Electronic advertisements dominate the skyline. Roadways and railways have extended vertically. When it rains, it rains with Climate Change force.
Molly drags Mai to the corporate headquarters of the giant conglomerate that produces those lovable, useful, techno-marvels known as Q-bots. Molly wants to be in the audience when the co-founder and CEO of the company, the beloved and revered Justin Pin (Jason Sudeikis), introduces the next generation Q-bot.
Justin Pin is a Steve Jobs-esque character — a seemingly laid-back, charismatic, independent free spirit who sports a ponytail, sandals and hipster glasses as he takes the stage (with giant monitors looming in the background) and proclaims: “This is the last Q-bot you’ll ever need. So let’s hear it for the new Gen 6! I’m not embarrassed to say, I want all of you addicted to these guys!”
Meanwhile, Mai stumbles into the secret lab of Dr. Rice (David Cross), the eccentric genius who has created every generation of Q-bots but is worried about Pin’s increasingly reckless and ruthless behavior.
Mai accidentally activates Dr. Rice’s secret creation: the robot 7723 (voiced by John Krasinski), who is equipped with an advanced weapons system, an empathetic “personality” and the ability to store memories, just like a human being.
After Mai sarcastically says something about 7723 becoming her best friend and accompanying her on great adventures and always having her back, the robot takes her words literally and will stop at nothing to be her best friend — even though Mai hates robots and keeps telling him to shove off.
Ah, but after Mai gets into a violent battle with her talking electric toothbrush (told you this film is all over the place) and 7723 steps in to protect her, Mai realizes she can put the big guy to good use, e.g. helping her extract revenge on the school bullies who have tormented and attacked her.
“Next Gen” keeps offering up odd touches, such as an electronic billboard for “The Dog Food that Humans Can Eat!”, or 7723 having the ability to understand what Mai’s dog Momo (Michael Pena) is saying, with Momo’s barks translated to bleep-filled English.
As 7723 becomes more human, his green neon eyes grow more expressive, and he develops a “mouth,” the better to indicate joy or sadness. For all of Krasinski’s versatility and likability, his voice work here is actually a detriment, because even with the robotic echo-effect, it’s so clearly John Krasinski’s voice that we’re taken out of the movie.
By the time one character turns into a creepy, malfunctioning aberration with one red electronic “Terminator” eye, and then we get a “Transformers”-style climactic battle, we just hope “Next Gen” will power down and give it a rest.
Netflix presents a film written and directed by Kevin Adams and Joe Ksander. No MPAA rating. Running time: 105 minutes. Premieres Friday on Netflix.