Zach Galifianakis and Olivia Colman in ‘Ron’s Gone Wrong’: Film Review

The animated feature centers on a socially awkward middle schooler who’s gifted a malfunctioning robot best friend.

Ron’s Gone Wrong may just capture one of the most realistic sci-fi futures seen onscreen in recent memory, in that it barely feels like a sci-fi future at all. True, it’s set in a world where almost every kid is followed around by a Bubble B*Bot, a pill-shape, toddler-size robot sidekick. Functionally, however, the B*Bots are little more than tricked-out iPhones — right down to the part where spending too much time with them turns out to be harmful for kids, and the tech companies don’t mind as long as it makes them money. But what the animated feature lacks in daring imagination, it makes up for with endearing good humor, thoughtful cultural critique and one heck of a cute robot.

As ever, the insidious tech of Ron’s Gone Wrong begins with ostensibly good intentions. In a splashy presentation, inventor Marc Weidell (Justice Smith) touts the B*Bot as every kid’s “best friend out of the box,” able not only to customize itself to reflect an individual user’s tastes, but to connect that user with other users according to an algorithm. Gone are the days of shy kids standing in the corner alone at recess — which is why social afterthought Barney Pudowski (Jack Dylan Grazer, trading his Luca brashness for bashfulness) is so elated when he becomes the very last student at Nonsuch Middle School to finally get his hands on one.

Ron’s Gone Wrong

The Bottom Line

Family-friendly fun, with a side of smart social media critique.

Release date: Friday, Oct. 22

Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Jack Dylan Grazer, Olivia Colman, Ed Helms, Justice Smith, Rob Delaney

Directors: Sarah Smith, Jean-Philippe Vine, Octavio Rodriguez (co-director)

Screenwriters: Peter Baynham, Sarah Smith

Rated PG,
1 hour 46 minutes

But Barney soon realizes, to his chagrin, that Ron (Zach Galifianakis, that king of lovable misfits) isn’t like other B*Bots. Damaged in an accident, Ron is unable to connect to the network or upload the usual apps and settings, and therefore more idiosyncratic than the rest of his line. He even looks wrong, in a way that makes him extra adorable. If the normal B*Bots are like smartphone home screens, flashy and colorful and constantly buzzing with notifications, Ron looks like a throwback to early-2000s Apple with his translucent white shell and simple, friendly smile. He acts more like the “dumb” tech of yore, too, combining Clippy’s chipperness with a Roomba’s mindless determination.

Ron’s Gone Wrong milks some solid laughs from the familiar frustrations that arise when tech doesn’t do quite what it’s supposed to, as when Ron takes the directive to learn everything about Barney as an instruction to run experiments determining the precise temperature at which Barney’s underwear will catch on fire. And there’s some lively stuff involving the boy’s Russian immigrant family’s inability, or unwillingness, to fit into the sleepy American suburb where they’ve found themselves. In a high-tech world, Grandma Donka (Olivia Colman) remains stubbornly old-school in her beliefs about the uses of goats and the existence of nut allergies. (She maintains that Barney’s adult cousin was killed not by a cashew, but by a ghost residing inside the cashew.) If there aren’t many jokes here that haven’t been made before, the ones the film does deliver are reliable and relatable.

Likewise, its lessons in how to be a good friend, as demonstrated by Barney’s growing bond with Ron, are unobjectionable, if not exactly deep. But even as Bubble CEO Andrew Morris (a Tim Cook look-alike voiced by Rob Delaney) scoffs that making friends in person is “so last three millennia,” Ron’s Gone Wrong seems to be on surer footing critiquing the way technology has warped human connection than when it digs into the insecurities and anxieties that might encourage a kid like Barney to lean on such technology in the first place.

The film treats the reveal that Andrew is using the B*Bot to surveil tweens and sell them products as barely a reveal at all, which seems exactly as it should be in a world where Facebook was developing Instagram for kids at the same time that it was shrugging off internal reports about the platform’s harm toward teens. (Just try not to think too hard about the fact that Ron’s Gone Wrong is itself advertising to kids, in the form of Marvel and Star Wars product placement seen throughout.)

Ron’s Gone Wrong doesn’t present itself as anti-tech per se, even as Bubble’s unwitting goons try to find and destroy Ron to protect the brand image. But it’s deft at capturing the alien chilliness of social media, whether in Ron’s bizarre attempts to “like” and “friend” in real life (mostly, this involves putting heart stickers on strangers) or in the corporate-speak that turns loved ones into “contacts” and childhood pranks into “content.” The film does stumble at times, especially in a third act that’s sure to have more experienced tech users grumbling that that’s not how the cloud works. But the broader point the film delivers is one worth making — not for the sake of some hypothetical future that might come to pass someday, but for the world as it exists already.

Full credits

Distributor: 20th Century Studios
Production company: Locksmith Animation
Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Jack Dylan Grazer, Olivia Colman, Ed Helms, Justice Smith, Rob Delaney, Kylie Cantrall, Ricardo Hurtado, Marcus Scribner, Thomas Barbusca
Directors: Sarah Smith, Jean-Philippe Vine
Co-director: Octavio Rodriguez
Screenwriters: Peter Baynham & Sarah Smith
Producers: Julie Lockhart, Lara Breay
Executive producers: Elisabeth Murdoch, Sarah Smith, Peter Baynham
Cinematographer: David Peers, Hailey White
Production designer: Nathan Crowley, Aurélien Predal
Editor: David Burrows
Composer: Henry Jackman
VFX supervisor: Philippe Denis
Animation director: Eric Leighton

Rated PG, 1 hour 46 minutes