The growing ubiquity of technology is a topic that science fiction movies have been grappling with for a while now. From Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with a smartphone to Will Smith being a robot racist, cinema has had a love affair with machinery basically since the invention of the Spinning Jenny. OK, that’s a slight overstatement, but Hollywood and moviemakers basically love to warn us of the potential dangers of machinery.
It’s only recently, though, as these writers have presumably grown up and have had kids of their own, that they’ve realised their children share a drastically different view on this topic, to kids who grew up in a world where iPads, Alexas, and HAL 3000’s, were everywhere machines aren’t some frightening force from the future. They’re a robot friend who helps them play games, set alarms, and occasionally spoil Christmas presents (thanks, Alexa).
Enter then Ron’s Gone Wrong, a charming animated movie from the new British animation studio Locksmith that showcases quite literally how a smart device could be your kid’s best friend while also reminding us of the importance of genuine connection at the same time. The family movie follows Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer), a young, lonely boy who’s the only kid in his class who doesn’t own a B-Bot.
B-Bots are basically what you’d get if you chucked an iPhone, an Alexa, and a Furby in Seth Brundle’s telepods. They’re cute digital pets who offer all the convenience of a modern-day smart device while also acting out more friends for their owners. Without a B-Bot, poor Barney’s something of a social pariah, unable to interact with his classmates who prefer to spend all their time online.
After a particularly depressing birthday, Barney’s dad (Ed Helms) decides to get him a B-Bot. There’s just one problem. These little robots are ridiculously expensive. With no other option, this doting dad buys Barney a bot that fell off the back of a truck and got a little damaged. Thus Barney meets the titular Ron (Zach Galifianakis), a B-Bot with more than a few screws loose and, well, the pair go on an incredible adventure, learning the true meaning of friendship along the way.
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I hope that doesn’t sound trite because I actually really enjoyed Ron’s Gone Wrong. I thought it was a brilliant film that dealt with some really interesting themes surrounding friendship and digital isolation. It would have been easy to have technology be the bad guy in the movie, but the script’s cleverer than that. It instead takes a more nuanced approach that tech is good for kids, but there need to be boundaries. Not only that, the film makes clear that it’s those who misuse technology to harvest data that are the real problem, not the devices themselves.
More than that, there’s a sense of universality to the film, despite its speculative premise. I think we all remember being kids and worrying about not having anyone to play with at lunch or about not having the latest toy. Ron’s Gone Wrong picks on those old insecurities in a really incisive way and will send shudders down the spines of older kids who maybe don’t look back on their school days too favourably.
Of course, a film about GDPR and isolation isn’t going to keep kids’ bums in seats, so it’s a good thing they remembered to make it funny. A large part of the humour comes from Ron himself. He’s just such an adorable and charming little bot who so desperately wants to make friends but can’t as a result of being damaged. Galifianakis gives the character real likeable energy that prevents the character from ever becoming too irritating. Jack Dylan Grazer is also fantastic; he bounces off Galifianakis so well you’d believe the two were having a real conversation.
Still, credit deserves to be given to writers Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith for writing some of the film’s best gags, including a surreal runner about the amount of torque required to remove a chicken’s head (it makes sense in context).
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If performances and writing are the first two gears in Ron’s Gone Wrong machinery, then the third is the animation. This is the first feature film from Locksmith Animation, a new studio based here in the UK that hopes to take on Pixar and Dreamworks and produce some of the best animated movies in the world.
In Ron’s Gone Wrong, you can see that Pixar and Dreamworks are in Locksmith’s DNA – a number of their staff have worked for the other great animation houses – but it manages to be its own thing. It feels tactile than the digital animation used in particular by Pixar, there’s a weight to everything that makes it feel more like an Aardman production or something by Laika, and I’m excited to see what they do next.
Ron’s Gone Wrong isn’t quite a classic, it’s overly long and suffers from one too many endings, but as a first effort from Locksmith, it’s a strong opening feature.
Ron’s Gone Wrong hits cinemas on October 15.