Ron's Gone Wrong Review: A Messy Animated Tech Fantasy

There is perhaps no more timely subject for an animated film than the proliferation of social media and technology in the hands of little kids, who now live-stream their entire lives for the world to see. Timeliness is rare in animated films, and yet here we are with "Ron's Gone Wrong," a film saddled with an ungainly, rhyming title that is also very much about the pitfalls and challenges of making friends in a society where just about everyone is glued to their technological devices, big and small. There's a core idea in the heart of "Ron's Gone Wrong" that begs for a sharp satirical eye, but the film surrounding that core idea is strangely unwilling to acknowledge its existence.

In the world of this computer-animated film, a major tech giant called Bubble has just revealed its latest groundbreaking invention courtesy of wunderkind CEO Marc (voiced by Justice Smith). It's called a B-Bot, and is designed to be a kid's "best friend, out of the box". What this actually means is that a B-Bot can connect to a kid's likes, dislikes, social media posts, and more to become a slick, AI accessory that becomes that child's "friend". 

In the small town of Nonsuch, every kid quickly gets a B-Bot, except for awkward middle-schooler Barney Pudowski (Jack Dylan Grazer). Barney wants badly to fit in at his middle school, feeling alienated from his old friends, his nerdy dad (Ed Helms), and his Eastern European grandmother (a funny but aurally unrecognizable Olivia Colman). When his birthday goes awry, Barney's dad realizes that a B-Bot is the best gift for his son and goes to slightly illegal lengths to make Barney's dream come true. (In this film, to be fair, "slightly illegal" is equivalent to "pays a Bubble deliveryman to get a slightly beaten-up B-Bot in an alley behind a Bubble store".) Barney is thrilled to have his very own B-Bot, soon nicknamed Ron (Zach Galifianakis), but since Ron hasn't had all of his settings uploaded, he's essentially malfunctioning from the get-go. Wackiness, predictably, ensues.

It's no one's fault, from directors Jean-Phillippe Vine and Sarah Smith to co-writers Smith and Peter Baynham, but many of the themes and tropes within "Ron's Gone Wrong" smack of unfortunate familiarity. The core story of a burgeoning friendship in a coming-of-age package is reminiscent of both "Big Hero 6" (Ron, as a non-snazzy version of a B-Bot, looks a lot like a miniature Baymax) and this past summer's wonderfully low-key "Luca". (It doesn't help that Grazer played one of the two friends in that film.) And the side of this film that's squarely about artificial intelligence and how sentient technology can easily backfire on its human creators feels like the caboose on the train led by this year's much funnier and slyer "The Mitchells vs. the Machines". "Ron's Gone Wrong" has its work cut out for it simply because it's following some very recognizable filmic touchstones.

Techie Nightmare or Dream Come True?

"Ron's Gone Wrong" cannot quite get a handle on its own opinion of technology as represented by the B-Bots, which are both incredibly cutting-edge and also surprisingly easy to break. The cause of Ron's malfunction is as simple as falling out of a vehicle that stops short on a surface street, the kind of screw-up that you'd think a tech company would have tried to handle.

 It may well be foolish to demand realistic parameters set up in place by a film that, at one point, features one character demanding that another take him to the Bubble cloud. That demand, to note, is meant sincerely and taken as such. But "Ron's Gone Wrong" intends to take place in a very realistic facsimile of our world, with tweens obsessed with gaming, outlandish pranks, and getting as many likes and views as possible. The notion of a B-Bot is at once both disturbingly believable and truly heinous. There are a few moments during the film where the script approaches acknowledging how empty and hollow a "friendship" with a robot that simply mirrors your own likes and dislikes would be, and how gross it is that a walking, talking robot would mine your data to get you to buy stuff.

But there is a strange naivete at the center of "Ron's Gone Wrong," in which the villain of the film isn't the entire Bubble corporation that foists B-Bots on the world without so much as wondering if everyone needs or wants one. Instead, it's one specific Bubble higher-up (voiced by comedian Rob Delaney, and designed to look somewhat like Steve Jobs or Tim Cook) who sees the B-Bots for what they really are: profit-grabbing machines. 

It's not that this character's viewpoint is sympathetic, considering that he crescendos one monologue by spitting out, "I hate kids!" It's that everyone else at Bubble is and seems to think that true friendship can best be summarized as that of a boy and his robot, and that a tech company using devices to track people's information is so wrong as to be unthinkable, which implies an ignorance of real-world concerns. There are plenty of stories of a boy making deep personal connections with non-human characters (think of "E.T."), but it's downright weird to watch "Ron's Gone Wrong" argue that making digital friends can be just as valuable as making flesh-and-blood pals. It's not that B-Bots are bad technology, in this movie's view, but that they just need a bit more personality.

"Ron's Gone Wrong" is frustrating for this and other reasons. The film is the first from Locksmith Animation, and it's good that there's a new original animated film coming slightly outside of the big corporations. ("Slightly" here is most apt since the film is released by 20th Century Studios ... or, in short, Disney.) Galifianakis is especially funny as Ron, and he and Grazer both sell the key relationship as best they can. The character design recalls some of the past Aardman Animation films, including the CGI "Arthur Christmas" (on which Smith worked), too. 

But as "Ron's Gone Wrong" careens towards an overlong climax past its expiration date, it is unable to grasp its own unwieldy warning of the proliferation of technology. A few years ago, a movie like this might have ended with the main character putting down his tech and going outside with real kids. This one ends with the kids and robots still hanging out harmoniously, an unintentionally sad commentary on how friendships have morphed so far beyond repair. "Ron's Gone Wrong" is offering a more dire state of technological affairs than it realizes or wants to.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10