Hollywood should be scared of Next Gen, a throwaway animated project released by Netflix that looks like a rip-off of Big Hero 6. Before you can say ‘Are you satisfied with your care?’, Next Gen blows the doors off of every kid-movie trope over the past ten years. Strap in, sit back, and hold on. Slide to a stop two hours later, gasping to catch your breath with one unmistakeable conclusion: Next Gen is Anti-Hollywood scifi.
And oh man, does that feel good.
Why do we need anti-Hollywood scifi? Why is this movie important? The answers to those questions go to the heart of the conflict playing out in science fiction at this time. Where casual readers decry the lack of variety in mainstream sci-fi, where Hollywood bemoans a lack of interest in non-Superhero scifi, Next Gen plants a flag in the ground and says: “Here you go.” It’s important, then, that we talk about a movie that would otherwise slip through the cracks. There’s a lesson here that spreads out to the rest of the genre.
So what is Next Gen about? Here’s a brief, non-spoiler synopsis: In summary, the plot is pretty stable. Girl meets robot, robot becomes friend, evil bad guy is going to take over the world and only the unlikely duo stands in his way. With me so far? Great. If you came here for a completely disruptive this-changes-everything movie, you’ll be leaving disappointed. That isn’t the point. Next Gen does change everything, and here’s how.
Hollywould Hollywood kid movies would tiptoe around sad themes, Next Gen faces them head on. We see a family fall apart at the start of the movie. Mom isn’t caring-but-wise, the comedy relief is keenly aware of their own limitations, Mai Su is genuinely upset by her emotionally-disconnected parent.
Big Hero 6 tried to touch on this, but like many other Disney projects, delicious story themes became bland afterthoughts. Important discussions about family, loss, and growth got shoehorned into a ‘this can be another franchise cash cow.’ This isn’t a touching coming-of-age film, it’s the origin story of a plucky group of tech-based superheroes!
Next Gen ignores all of this, determined to tell a self-contained story, and what a story it is. They talk about what it’s like to be fourteen and realize that your parent is an imperfect, frail being. They articulately discuss the conflict between techno-giants like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, framing discussions about technology and humanity in a way that even children understand. They talk about what people will go through to love people who feel unloveable. Those are huge, universe-spanning topics that Next Gen handles with precision and grace.
This isn’t a movie on the Lifetime channel, though. The action sequences are taut, the pacing is tight, and the dialog crackles with hysterical, safe jokes no mainstream Hollywood kids-movie would be brave enough to tell. Good guys aren’t shy about kicking butt. Bad guys don’t just tie up the innocent victims, they vaporize them.
This, this is the kind of sci-fi you’ve been waiting for. Next Gen isn’t trying out for a line of action figures, it wants watchers lined up around the block. It doesn’t commoditize characters, it develops them, celebrates them, and invites all of us to do the same for ourselves.
For as many robots as are visible in this movie, all the characters feel remarkably human. Next Gen knows its audience and respects them. They tell a story that kids are capable of hearing, and it’s wonderful.
What makes this anti-Hollywood is pretty simple: Baozou and Alibaba Pictures are not mainstream studios, and Next Gen proves they don’t need to be. Netflix was willing to take a chance on them, and that’s a shot across the bow of every Hollywood gatekeeper in 2018. Now, everyone can replicate the simple themes of every kid movie ever. Then they can do better. They can add the important and unique aspects that turn a good story great, and people will watch.
Next Gen should absolutely terrify the Animation-Industrial Complex. It’s saying to Hollywood: We don’t have to watch your movies. There are other options. You can have your theme parks, your Comic Cons and your t-shirts. We’ll keep our attention and our money.