Ron’s Gone Wrong Frustratingly Doesn’t Compute
There are plenty of reasons why Ron’s Gone Wrong should be perfect for this precise moment. It deals with issues relating to social media addiction, an overreliance on technology and the loss of physical communication skills since everyone is living so much of their daily lives online. This is especially true when it comes to kids, many of whom have a more personal and heartfelt connection to their cellphone than they do to fellow humans their own age.
This is what directors Sarah Smith and Jean-Philippe Vine, along with co-director Octavio E. Rodriguez, appear to have set their well-intentioned hearts on exploring. But the script by Smith and Peter Baynham, who were also behind the positively delightful Arthur Christmas, is maddeningly unfocused, and its central themes are frustratingly unclear. Its points are seldom made with any certainty, and everything builds to a strange conclusion that comes perilously close to being the literal definition of “mixed messaging.”
Nonsuch Middle School student Barney Pudowski (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) doesn’t have any friends. He’s a loner, hesitant to go outside at recess and determined to do whatever he can to fly under the radar and not be made fun of. Even so, he’d still like to fit in, even if only for a moment.
It’s Barney’s birthday, and all he wants is a B*bot, a revolutionary robotic, mechanized “friend” that’s become all the rage and may allow him to get closer to his classmates. But his kindly, novelty-toy-inventor father Graham (Ed Helms) doesn’t have a lot of disposable income. As for his kooky but loving grandmother Donka (Olivia Colman), she doesn’t know the first thing about technology, and refuses to understand how a robot thingamajig could ever substitute for the type of human friends Barney had back in elementary school.
In a twist straight out of Child’s Play, Graham and Donka are able to secure a B*bot from a back-alley street vendor, not realizing it’s damaged. Initially Barney is overjoyed, but since his new cybernetic companion has almost zero pre-installed memory, it becomes clear the boy is going to have teach his toy how to be his friend instead of it knowing all that information fresh out of the box. This leads him to nickname the B*bot “Ron” (Zach Galifianakis), and a flurry of whacky shenanigans ensue.
Those are just the basics. There’s also a powerful tech conglomerate that created the B*bots that wants Ron back — to study and destroy it, as the company is worried Ron will threaten its profit margins. Then there is the actual inventor of the machine, who hopes to study its code so as to discover how the B*bot could become a real friend to Barney and not a programmed imitation.
There’s also stuff involving all the kids at Nonsuch Middle School. They’ve split themselves into cliques based almost entirely on who their B*bots think they should and should not like governed by their owner’s likes and dislikes, matching people on compatibility theorems they’ve been programmed to be beholden to. The kids are now obsessed with living their lives online, their success and popularity decided by how many “likes” they can rack up or how many followers they have — and practically nothing else.
As a pure tale of friendship between Barney and Ron, there are some winning elements. There is a lovely moment where the human cog in this duo realizes how selfish he’s been. He frees Ron to be his own entity, unrestricted from having to follow any rigid protocols determined by Barney’s needs, wants or desires. It instantly strengthens their bond, allowing their relationship to evolve in ways that are genuinely heartfelt.
But there is a lot more going on, and unfortunately the film never gets a solid handle on all it’s trying to explore or say. As much as I liked Graham and Donka — and both Helms and Colman voice the pair magnificently — they’re so peripheral I never grew as connected to them in as I did to Barney and Ron. They don’t get enough to do, and are too inconsequentially fleshed out to matter nearly as much as I imagine they were supposed to.
As for the other children, many of them are going through some deep, hard-hitting stuff, especially in regard to loneliness and feeling disassociated from their classmates. Yet most of them never come alive. Their social anxiety or hidden emotional terrors have no resonance. The sentiments fueling their arcs feel engineered, not real, making the catharsis of the ending fall disappointingly flat.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Mitchells vs the Machines, in which high schooler Katie Mitchell and her precocious little brother Aaron stand up to an all-powerful tech company’s AI creation (coincidentally voiced by Colman) and in the process become. It already explored many of these same issues, and did so with an imaginative wit and an intelligent grace that took me by surprise. That’s still the best animated film I’ve seen so far this year.
No such luck with Ron’s Gone Wrong. Even though its heart is in the right place, and although there’s an admittedly sublime vocal performance by Galifianakis, the storytelling is just too muddled to be effective. The climactic moral to this wacky tale of friendship in an age of omnipresent digital connectivity tries to play things down the middle, and in the process slaps itself in the face right when it’s also trying to pat itself on the back. Color me unimpressed.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)