Monday, September 24, 2018

'Next Gen' Review: Netflix Silently Drops One of the Year's Best Animated Films

Netflix's distribution method for untested properties is a complete misery. If the movie isn't a sure thing, and there isn't a lot of hype built behind the release, many of  its original films are dropped quietly onto the streaming service with little to no fanfare. It is a travesty.

In many cases, this might be deservedly so. Many Netflix originals are sub-par. But sometimes they let a real gem slip through the cracks, and Next Gen is one of those rare films.

As I said, it is easy to see many of the Netflix originals as you endless scroll through the service's vast library, and just pass over them. You figure that, if one of them were truly noteworthy, word of mouth would have surely brought it to your attention. Next Gen is the first feature film from directors Kevin R. Adams and Joe Ksander. The two are certainly not strangers to the world of animation, though; the two have done tons of noteworthy work in art direction and visual effects, including work on the Shane Acker film 9, and work on Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim. And with their directorial debut, they deserve way more praise and attention than they are getting.

The plot may sound a little bit similar to Big Hero 6, but Next Gen is a lot less sterile and more inventive than its Disney counterpart. It follows a teenage girl named Mai (Charlyne Yi) in a not too distant future, where robots assist humans in almost every facet of life. Mai's mother Molly (Constance Wu) is a robot obsessive, and her rebellious teen daughter is appropriately extremely anti-robot.

Molly drags Mai along to the product launch of the newest "Q-Bot," the world's iPhone analog. It is a robot helper that follows you along at all moments of your life and assists you with anything and everything. The Generation 6 Q-Bot is being introduced by a Steve Jobs type character named Justin Pin (Jason Sudeikis). Completely put off by the entire hullabaloo, Mai wanders off and comes across a secret robot prototype: Project 77 (John Krasinski). Designed in secret by Dr. Tanner Rice (David Cross), the robot quickly imprints on Mai, and is irrevocably drawn to her.

Right off the bat, looking at the film's voice cast, it is baffling that the movie wasn't marketed more heavily, or at all for that matter. John Krasinski is arguably a bigger star in this moment than he ever was in his years on The Office. After his first successful dramatic turns in A Quiet Place and Amazon's Jack Ryan, Krasinski feels like he's at his most bankable. And, unlike other films of its ilk, Next Gen is a movie about Asian characters that are actually brought to life by Asian performers. There's a lot of good stuff going here.

In this day and age, it is unfortunate that so many animated films are marketed solely at kids, leaving very little for the begrudging parents to enjoy as they are dragged to the cinema. Next Gen is a rare film that has a lot of adult humor, thinly veiled enough to go over kids' heads, but obvious enough for it to land with grown-ups. Mai's dog Momo is voiced in certain scenes by Michael Pena, and almost every line he delivers is flat out hilarity for all ages.

There is an action set-piece towards the latter half of the film that goes above and beyond, and is on-par, if not better than anything you've seen in recent action films. Animated films have the convenience of never needing a physical camera in a space, and Next Gen uses that to its fullest potential. The camera sweeps across the futuristic cityscape following our two combatants in what feels like a single shot, It spans from the city streets to outer space. It is a remarkable spectacle with some really iconic shots.

And you can tell that this is a passion project for these filmmakers, because the world building here is exquisite, but understated. Do you need to go out of your way to make the space that your children's movie exists in feel lived-in and believable? Probably not. But Adams & Ksander slip little details and background elements into every scene that really brings the world of Next Gen to life.

If you are tired of showing your children lowest common denominator fare like Minions, look no further than this Netflix original. It's only a few button presses away, and has something for everyone. It's a rare type of animated film, and it deserves more attention.

I give Next Gen a 3.5 out of 5. It is on Netflix streaming right now.