Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 BFI London Film Festival. 20th Century Studios releases the film in theaters on Friday, October 22.
The worst thing about “Ron’s Gone Wrong,” the debut feature from Locksmith Animation, is that it came out right under the heels of the superb Netflix effort “The Mitchells vs. the Machines.” Don’t let that stop you from watching this film, however, because even without experimental visuals, this film packs enough heart and ideas about the social connections and friendship in the Extremely Online era to become a fun film for the whole family.
Set in a future where an Apple-like tech company dominates so much of the world’s collective consciousness that the latest keynote conference is attended by hundreds of kids chanting about how much they love codes and algorithms, the hottest device in town is not a phone, but a robot. Tech guru Marc (voiced by Justice Smith) swears he just fixed friendship, with an algorithm with which the “B-bots” are engineered to know everything about you, then use the information to find other like-minded people and send them friend requests on your behalf. It’s a clever way to subvert the expectations that phones and social media are inherently evil, with the B-bots being literally created to help you make friends in real life, you know, like social media is supposed to work.
We follow Barney Pudowski (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer), the one kid in his entire middle school without a B-bot, or any social media presence, as his dad seems to be against Barney being glued to the screen — which is exactly what he is most of the time. When his dad finally caves in and buys him the cute robot at a discount from a guy in a van, Barney discovers that his B-bot is slightly off, and not just because it’s voiced by Zach Galifianakis. You see, this bot isn’t connected to the cloud, so he has no access to Barney’s data, or any other data for that matter. The result is a How to Train Your Baymax-story where Barney is forced to teach Ron about himself, life, and how to be a friend, as he realizes that technology can actually help him grow into a better person.
The best thing about “Ron’s Gone Wrong” is that, like “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” or the recent “Belle,” it rejects the notion that technology is bringing about the end of humanity. There is no “Black Mirror” style cynicism to be found anywhere near this film. On the contrary, the B-bots genuinely seem to help kids connect to one another and grow into becoming more comfortable in their own skin, but the kids can also use the technology to get too caught up in their own small vision of the world and become isolated. As Barney teaches Ron about friendship, he himself learns about what it means to not only have a friend, but to be one.
Many of the laughs come from Galifianakis’ stellar turn as Ron, whose deadpan deliveries keep the film at a consistent level of comedy, whether it’s Ron unknowingly mocking Barney’s lack of friends, or his recognizing of his malfunctions and how it allows him to beat up the school bullies all while laughing about it as if it was a game. Likewise, Olivia Colman’s grandma Donka is a highlight of the film, a self-described anti-communist Bulgarian lady with an arsenal of deadly tools at her disposal at all times, and a fervent belief that cashew nuts led to one of Barney’s uncles to become possessed by a demon.
As the debut film from Locksmith Animation, “Ron’s Gone Wrong” is a serviceable if mostly forgettable effort, as it lacks visual splendor or a truly innovative approach to animation or storytelling. Co-writers Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith employ the same balance of heart and humor that made “Arthur Christmas” great, which may help the film appeal to a broader audience, but likely won’t bring the kind of studio recognition that something like “Coraline” did for LAIKA. It doesn’t help that the film got caught up in the Disney acquisition of 20th Century Fox, as there are shoehorned-in attempts at corporate synergy that bring to mind the climax of “Free Guy.”
In addition to the kid-friendly laughs and gags, the film does pack a message about technology and the way corporations try to sell kids products meant to “fix” their lives, all while surveilling them and mining their data in order to sell them more products. It’s an interesting idea that may go over the head of some of the youngest viewers, but still serves as a poignant reminder for teens and parents alike that conglomerates are not their friends.
“Ron’s Gone Wrong” has enough ideas about our current relationship with technology and social media to bring about important conversations between parents and teens that are more than just “phones are bad,” while delivering a charming and at times laugh-out-loud funny story about a boy and his robot computer friend.
“Ron’s Gone Wrong” premiered at the BFI London Film Festival. 20th Century Studios releases it in theaters on Friday, October 22.
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