While some of the features on offer this festival aren’t for the faint of heart (looking at you, Titane), Ron’s Gone Wrong is a delight of an animation. Full of warmth and good humour, it’s the perfect antidote to festival shockers from new British studio Locksmith Animation. A Big Hero 6– style family romp, it centres on a lonely 12-year-old boy, Barney (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) whose life changes when his family give him a Bubble Bot for his birthday.
Ron’s Gone Wrong
Directors: Sarah Smith, Jean-Philippe Vine, Octavio E. Rodriguez
Release date: October 9, 2021 (LFF)
Bubble, a fictional global tech startup, has the world in thrall. A thinly-veiled guise for Apple, Google, or any of the huge brands currently playing an active role in our digital lives, it’s run by a young, smart and ambitious CEO, Mark (the parallel there a little on the nose.) Mark delivers a keynote from Bubble HQ to open the film, introducing his creation: Bubble Bots, or B-Bots. These AI robots download a person’s personal details from The Cloud and uses it to shape their own personality, instantly becoming that boy or girl’s best friend. The B-Bot’s intention is to find compatible friends for its buddy, and soon enough this award-winning concept is adopted by seemingly every middle-schooler around the world.
Except Barney, that is. Barney’s family is a little unorthodox: taking a more traditional view to life and socialising, his inventor father Graham (voiced by Ed Helms) is reluctant to let Barney get a B-Bot, and would rather he played outside on his bike, spending time with real friends. When Barney protests that he ‘needs a B-Bot to have a social life’, it’s clear that they stand as much for our ultra-dependence on technology as anything else. They’re not a substitute for phones – the exposition makes it clear that they can be compatible with any device – but they do clearly show what could happen if we entirely abandoned in-person connections in favour of gadgets.
After Barney’s disastrous and lonely birthday, his father and grandmother (voiced by Olivia Colman) start to worry about him and decide to invest in a bot so that he can feel like he fits in at school. I felt quite sad about the fact: the pandemic has only exacerbated this ‘digital divide’. How many teenagers feel the need to invest in expensive technology to make friends? It’s an unfair and unequal playing field; nevertheless, it sets up the plot and Barney’s family manage to find a slightly faulty B-Bot from a back-alley dealer.
When Barney befriends his B-Bot, named Ron (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), it’s clear something isn’t quite right. He’s not programmed the way he should be. He lacks any kind of control (any settings at all, for that matter), leading them into a spiral of wacky events, each getting more out-of-hand than the last. Soon, the whole school is involved, and what should have been a strategy to make Barney fit in only makes him stand out all the more.
What’s worse, their actions start to get global attention. Although devoid of malicious news and media coverage, the narrative does skewer the world of PR. In particular, a savvy co-owner of Bubble takes the opportunity to wrangle the bad press about their products into spin about how this boy and bot have learned to operate outside the functioning model.
Half-amusing, half-alarming are the references to data harvesting, to privacy concerns about the use of cameras in the proximity of every schoolchild engaged in the Bubble network, and the flagrant abuse of consumer trust in favour of gathering information. With Cambridge Analytica’s scandal still fresh in mind, four years after it erupted, the film makes a not-so-subtle point that technology can harm us as much as it can aid us.
But despite this latent tech anxiety, there are heartfelt scenes between Ron and Barney, in which the two learn to become friends with one another, and ultimately it’s this formula that really serves up the meat of the film. No matter who you are or what your background is, it seems to say, the important thing is learning to be a better friend to others. It’s good, wholesome content, and you can count on it for a fun time.
Films such as Eighth Grade have tackled the same subject matter, aiming at a teenage audience who seem to live and die by social media, but Ron’s Gone Wrong focuses as much on its teenage subjects as it does the tech they use. After all, Ron isn’t the only one in need of fixing, and his role is an important one in Barney’s life.
With an October release, no doubt Ron’s Gone Wrong will be a hit with both children and parents over half term. The messaging may be a little heavy-handed at times, but don’t rely on a children’s film for subtlety. Instead, I’d take away the affirming messages about learning to connect with others, about not hinging one’s entire social existence and reputation on an online presence, and instead being mindful about the way we live. Perhaps it could have done with a little more digging into Barney’s family, or filling out a few more of the other characters he interacts with, but it works as an entertaining family flick.
It leaves plenty open to discussion without feeling too preachy, the jokes land well enough, and it involves both teens and older generations which is bound to be a winner. Not to mention the fact that robot Ron is absolutely adorable (and the plush toy has been spotted: it’s all I want in life.) The animation is on-par with the big contenders such as Pixar, and coming from a British studio new to the festival circuit, it’s a worthy contender and good work indeed.