I’ve mentioned before that this year has been relatively weak when it comes to animation. We’ve had one half-decent but underwhelming core Disney movie, one of the worst Pixar entries outside of the Cars series, and several ill-advised sequels to the likes of The Addams Family and The Boss Baby. The only real triumph in American animation this year was The Mitchells vs. The Machines, and even then, I can easily see the Academy ignoring it entirely once Encanto comes out later this month. I’ll be genuinely interested to see what gets submitted for Animated Feature once the Academy makes the announcement.
In the meantime, though, we have Ron’s Gone Wrong, produced by newcomers Locksmith Studios (so named after founders Sarah Smith, who also co-directed this film, and Julie Lockhart) and distributed by 20th Century Animation, their first release since Blue Sky was shuttered earlier this year. Along with Mitchells, this is the second animated movie this year to deal with extreme possibilities of technology and social media, and also to feature Olivia Colman in the voice cast. This is decidedly the lesser of the two, mostly because it doesn’t take nearly the same risks as Mitchells did, and there appear to be some missed opportunities for strong satire and social commentary.
That said, on its own, this is still a charming, funny, and ultimately harmless story that kids will enjoy, featuring some pretty fantastic animation in parts. In a world where the attention spans of young people are shorter than ever, this film cleverly uses that to further engage its audience, never staying in one place for too long and moving the plot at a fairly brisk pace.
Jack Dylan Grazer stars as Barney, a lonely middle school student who doesn’t appear to have any friends. He lives with his widower father (Ed Helms), and his Russian stereotype grandmother (Colman). Part of Barney’s isolation is that his dad – who scrapes a living selling novelty items – can’t afford to buy him a “B-Bot,” an egg-shaped robot programmed for social media interaction and to simulate friendship. The B-Bot was invented by Marc Weidell (Justice Smith), who is clearly a thinly-veiled reference to what Mark Zuckerberg would look like if he had a soul, the CEO of Bubble (Apple parody). Marc is an altruist who created the B-Bot to be every child’s new best friend, while his COO Andrew (Rob Delaney), a not-even-veiled send-up of Steve Jobs (right down to the black turtleneck) is only interested in profit and selling personal data. The B-Bots are so ubiquitous that literally every student in Barney’s school has one except for him, to the point that the school installed racks for the robots to “sit” in during class so as not to be a distraction.
All of the kids at school spend recess playing with their B-Bots rather than each other, or Barney, who sits on a desperately-made “Friendship Bench” every day in hopes that people will interact with him. Barney had friends before middle school, but they’ve all gone their separate, digital ways. Noah (Cullen McCarthy) is super into video games, and uses his B-Bot to unlock bonuses and house people’s high scores. Ava (Ava Morse), is into science and slavish to algorithmic compatibility. Rich (Ricardo Hurtado) only cares about making prank videos in the hopes of viral fame, and Savannah (Kylie Cantrell) is so obsessed with lifestyle vlogging that I had to double check the credits to make sure it wasn’t Elsie Fisher and that I wasn’t watching an animated version of Eighth Grade.
From where I sit, this is an okay establishment of the characters, but it’s a wasted opportunity for legitimate insight. Rather than explore the core issues at heart, the whole scenario is played more as pre-teen angst. There’s a lot to go over here, from the fickle nature of technology, to the misplaced priorities of the younger generation in the digital age, to the fact that when you really get down to it, Barney’s ostracized because he’s poor. Hell, there’s even a really deep bit of self-inventory that could have been shown in figuring out why these kids were Barney’s friends in the first place, and how they grew apart. There’s a brief moment later in the film where Barney admits that they all became friends as younger kids because they lived on the same block, a salient point, as most of our first friendships arise from convenience and coincidence (physical location, random seat assignments on the school bus, etc.), but it’s sadly left dangling, never daring to posit that the kids in this film – ostensibly the same age group as the target audience – just simply don’t know any real social skills. Nah, we can’t suggest that, it might lead to children not posting on their Instagram about how much they love the movie. Can’t have that, now can we?
Anyway, after Barney has a disappointing birthday where no one shows up (because he didn’t have the courage to invite people using paper), his dad gets a guilt trip and decides to buy him a B-Bot. With the shop closed, he and grandma meet a delivery driver in an alley with a model he dropped on accident. Rather than see it destroyed, Barney’s dad buys it on the cheap, surprising him the next morning.
Overjoyed, Barney activates his new best friend, only to find that it’s defective and can’t download its proper programming to begin tailoring itself to him. Instead, the robot, whom he dubs “Ron” based on his serial number, has incomplete data and poor motor skills. In one of the better running gags of the film, Ron refers to Barney as “Absalom,” because he only has “A” names in his database, and that was the first one Barney responded to in any way.
Now, one of the more inspired choices of the film is having Ron be voiced by Zach Galifianakis. I’ve been a fan of his comedy for more than 20 years, and this is a tremendous showcase for his talents. While most of his films focus on his physical abilities and his envelope-pushing style of humor, this film hones in on what I feel is his biggest asset, but not one easily translatable to the big screen, which is his monotone delivery. If you’ve ever seen his stage work, he’s an absolute master at telling jokes of varying levels of appropriateness, all with the same relatively low-key speech pattern. It’s not robotic, but at times it does feel mechanical. It’s very matter-of-fact, whether he’s talking about his physical appearance or doing something incredibly raunchy. He’s very comfortable as a conspicuous presence that acts and speaks like he’s completely unaware of any awkwardness he might convey, and it’s truly brilliant.
As Ron, he gets the perfect outlet for this exact skill, as the banged-up B-Bot is essentially a blank slate (right down to the fact that it has no skins downloaded, and Barney “accessorizes” him with a wool cap), a curious child taking every directive as literally as possible and learning everything in the film’s real time. This is no better illustrated than in a midway scene where Savannah tells Ron his function is to get Barney friends, so he literally just wanders about town asking people to be Barney’s friend, dragging them one by one to the school.
With no ability to trade him in, Barney decides to teach Ron how to be a friend, formulating a corkboard flow chart of the proper behaviors and actions of a true friend. As usual, hijinks ensue, particularly an incident where Ron slaps Rich when he tries to bully Barney. Rather than seek revenge, Rich intercepts Ron to find which safety programs are disabled on him. He doesn’t do this to “fix” Ron, of course, but to apply the same setting to his own B-Bot in order to make prank videos featuring low-level violence. This leads to a fairly predictable midpoint climax where all the school B-Bots run amok, forcing Bubble to try to track Ron down and destroy him, as well as the first poop joke I’ve guffawed at in years. I’m not above toilet humor, it often makes me chuckle, but the gag here actually had me burst out laughing in my seat, and it maintained its momentum every time the movie called back to it. It’s a rare achievement, and I appreciate it.
From there it’s basically your standard issue kids adventure where Barney’s former friends briefly examine why they don’t hang out with him anymore, the evil corporate executive tries to profit off of misery, the benevolent one tries to satisfy all sides, and Barney goes to baffling and illogical lengths to save Ron from being crushed. It’s nothing offensive, but it’s also nothing new, as once again ripe grounds for satirical exploration are simply ignored in favor of the spectacle and product placement. There are some fairly obvious things worth delving into, from Ron’s burgeoning artificial intelligence, to the kids taking stock over what really matters in life, but that would just hold up the happy ending, so of course it’s all glossed over.
Really, we only get two bits of insight in the third act, but even then, they only scratch the surface. One, through seeing monitors of his erstwhile companions, Barney learns that all of them are just as lonely as he is. The difference is they have a public-facing outlet via the B-Bot to pretend they’re all on top of the world. Second, as the inevitable action scenes and chases reach their end, Barney realizes he’s been training Ron to be his friend without ever acting as a true friend to Ron, learning that friendship is, and always has been, a two-way street. It’s an obvious lesson for the kids, but a worthwhile one nonetheless. But again, in an attempt to appear profound while still selling toys, the film doesn’t have the balls to actually suggest a true solution – setting tech and social media aside and just interacting with other people. Instead it goes for a half-assed happy medium where everyone is friends again, while still playing with B-Bots.
I know I’ve harped on the flaws on this movie a lot, but I should stress that they’re on the whole minor, and overall, this is a pretty good movie. Galifianakis’ line readings as I said are spectacular, his comic delivery making him an absolutely perfect casting. The animation is fairly strong as well, particularly in the designs of the B-Bots and their various apps and skins. The human characters leave a little to be desired, but they’re simple enough that their major traits are understandable through appearance alone, which is crucial for a young audience to fully grasp the concepts. Most of the jokes land, especially that surprisingly great poop gag midway through. There’s also a deliciously dark runner where grandma hilariously mourns relatives who were “disappeared” by what is assumed to be various Soviet regimes. It contrasts quite nicely with the all but required dead parent trope for Barney’s mom.
So yeah, this isn’t a great movie, but it is good, and I think it accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is entertain kids under 13 and sell merchandise. But I can’t help but mourn the lost potential here at times. This movie could have been so much more than what it ended up being, but it takes the easy way out too many times rather than offering genuine insight and commentary on the real issues of Barney and Ron’s story. It’s still fun, and funny, but in a year where quality animation has been sorely lacking, Ron’s Gone Wrong missed a golden opportunity to stand out.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How would you decorate your B-Bot? What are the chances this film inspires some kid to actually read “Absalom, Absalom!”? Let me know!