Ron’s Gone Wrong, 2021.
Directed by Sarah Smith and Jean-Philippe Vine.
Featuring the voice talents of Zach Galifianakis, Jack Dylan Grazer, Olivia Colman, Ed Helms, Justice Smith, Rob Delaney, Kylie Cantrall, and Ricardo Hurtado.
The story of Barney, an awkward middle-schooler, and Ron, his new walking, talking, digitally connected device. Ron’s malfunctions set against the backdrop of the social media age launch them on a journey to learn about true friendship.
It’s impossible to not write about Ron’s Gone Wrong, a stunningly detailed animated feature from the directorial duo of Sarah Smith and Jean-Philippe Vine (based on an idea by Miranda Leiggi with Peter Baynham screenwriting the eventual story that followed from Carol Heikkinen, Geoff Rodkey, and Sarah Smith herself) attempting to illuminate the negative effects of social media for middle schoolers, without thinking of the recent expose on Mark Zuckerberg owned platforms Facebook and Instagram shedding light on how they can be harmful in regards to mental health and self-esteem. If anything, it feels like someone at Twentieth Century saw the slander and decided to strike while the iron was hot, setting up critic screenings right away. While not necessarily uncommon, even the embargo is (obviously, since you are reading this) lifting two weeks away from release.
Set in a slightly futuristic world where similarly aged kids all have their own Bubble-Bot (or B*Bot), a robot designed to be a best friend. Pill-shaped and somewhat resembling R2-D2 without arms, they are able to download all information about their owner instantaneously and replicate an agreeable personality, also rendering their exterior with colors and designs speaking to that personality.
Regardless of social class, everyone seems to have a B*Bot. You’re not cool if you don’t have one. Enter the socially awkward Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer, already having one terrific voiceover performance under his belt this year with Luca), his overworked online salesman father Graham Pudowski (Ed Helms), and quirky grandmother Donka (Olivia Colman, of all people, nonetheless seemingly having fun voicing such an off-the-wall character). For reasons that never feel fully explored (something to do with the tragic early death of Barney’s mother and his father preferring him to make real friends), birthdays come and go without getting him one. As a result, Barney is perceived as even more of an outcast and weird. He’s lonely to the point he doesn’t bother inviting anyone to his birthday parties, defeatedly stating that people can’t say no if he doesn’t ask.
Following some bullying from classroom jerk Rich (Ricardo Hurtado) and pals, dad and grandma cave and drive to the Bubble Store (Apple is almost certainly another target in this light and too loose social commentary on the digital age) where, unfortunately, B*Bots are out of stock. However, one falls out of the truck in a nearby alley, not stopping them from obtaining one cheap. Given the title, it also shouldn’t be a surprise that Ron (as the B*Bot has his absurdly long name condensed to, and voiced by Zach Galifianakis) is defective and malfunctions right out of the box. Not only is he generically monochrome and incapable of altering his appearance, but he also can’t download any necessary data to perform any of his functions.
Properly working B*Bots take everything they know about the owner and venture out into surrounding areas showing like-minded people about that person, effectively sending a friend request. Additionally, they also have streaming capabilities (a girl obsessed with online popularity learns the hard way the cons of living entirely online), validating their owners, snapping and filtering pictures, and pretty much anything else an iPhone or communicative robotic device can already do. Meanwhile, Barney has to teach his B*Bot everything about himself and what it means to be a perfect friend.
However, It’s clear that Barney also has the wrong idea of what a friend should be; his definition very much leans into obedience, validation, and elimination of self-identity. Meanwhile, Ron struggles with learning (the humor is childishly grating and relentlessly irreverent), although the two quickly develop a charming bond. At Bubble HQ, B*Bot inventor Marc (Justice Smith) is fascinated by the seemingly sentient, free-thinking robot, whereas Andrew (Rob Delaney), another high-ranking official in the company, is only concerned with algorithms and spying on the children to pinpoint their interests and sell them more products. He doesn’t care about the effects on the children, perceiving Ron as a potential PR disaster that must be eliminated.
All sorts of shenanigans ensue, with an admirable message at heart explaining to children how a healthy friendship functions. That messaging is also mixed, considering it seemingly indicates that children having consumer products as a best friend is somehow appropriate rather than actual human interaction. There’s not even a suggestion that hanging out with robots and moderation is key. Ron’s Gone Wrong is content expressing that human and robot friendship can co-exist, in doing so, letting off its social media targets easy. Somewhere along the way, the intent and purpose of the story got confused, and no one bothered to iron it out into one that’s consistent and sensible. It’s occasionally cute and trying to tackle different themes for an animated feature, but has one too many malfunctions of its own.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com