Ron’s Gone Wrong

UK/US (2021) Dirs. Sarah Smith & Jean-Philippe Vine

Kids these days spend way too much time on their phones or playing computer games that they don’t know what it is like to interact with people in real life. That is the picture painted by the media and may even be probably true in some instances, but lest we forget, for all its sins, technology has helped bring people together too. 

Barney Pudowski is a 12 year-old high school kid with no friends, his main interest being petrology. He lives with his widowed father Graham and Polish-born grandmother Donka. One thing that alienates him from all the other kids at school, including former childhood friends, is the latest technology must have a B-bot – an android created by the Bubble tech company with an algorithm designed to help kids make friends.

When nobody shows up for Barney’s birthday party, Graham and Donka rush to by a B-bot for Barney but the store is closed. However, they meet a delivery driver with a B-bot he dropped on the floor and buy it for a discount price. Barney is overjoyed to have his own B-bot, which he names Ron, except its program is faulty and can’t update its software, leaving it prone to doing its own thing.

Ron’s Gone Wrong is the debut from British CGI animation studio Locksmith Animation, founded in 2014 by director Sarah Smith and producer Julia Lockhart, but you wouldn’t know this was a British production from how overly American it is. Most of the cast save for the ubiquitous Olive Colman are American and the film is set in America, which might be the influence of the films financer US based TSG Entertainment.

Most importantly, this looks like every other Pixar/DreamWorks/Disney CGI animation which is something a British influence might have overcome, but didn’t. I personally find it fascinating that Smith and co-writer Peter Baynham are both long time collaborators of satirists Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris, making them the least likely to make a family film.

Unless the original idea was to be more cynical towards the dominance of tech in social media in the lives of modern kids, and the shameless avarice of the tech companies, manifest in the duplicitous COO of Bubble Andrew Morris. He thinks only of profit and public appearance to keep the investors happy whilst CEO and creator of the B-bot, Marc Weidell, has genuine, if misguided, good intentions.

His concept behind the B-bot is it a phone or PC in robot form; a small capsule shaped companion programmed to read the profiles of every other B-bot owner and if their interest match, you become friends. Just like social media, it can send messages, as well as act like a phone and record video or sounds to be broadcast to the world, whilst its aesthetic can be personalised to give it an individual personality and look.

Poor Barney however, is left out since his family can’t afford to buy him a B-bot and is teased by everyone at school, even those who were once his friends, like rich girl Savannah, Ava, the science nerd, and prankster Rich, the latter turning into bully with his video pranks at Barney’s expense. As much as the aphorism “With friends like that…” comes to mind, Barney is about to have his hands full with Ron, his name taken from his serial number.

The inbuilt software doesn’t load properly and Ron can’t follow any of the protocols of the programme or the algorithm, meaning Ron can’t do his job of finding friends for Barney. But as Barney is about to take him back to the shop – unaware it was an illegal purchase – an encounter with Rich during which Ron beast his tormentor up, makes Barney realise Ron is a better friend than people, flaws and all.

Except violence and free thought is against a B-bot’s protocol and matters escalate when Rich’s B-bot copies Ron’s autonomous programming and sends it to the other B-bots, causing a mass riot. Bubble panic at the drop in stock price, so decide to recall Ron and destroy him. Borrowing from the E.T play book, Barney and Ron go on the run, but with Barney’s asthma and Ron’s battery running low, chances of survival are slim.

So many mixed messages are present in the story it is hard to know what exactly it is trying to say; is it standing up for social networking as a way to make friends? Or is it condemning it for making physical interactions obsolete? Maybe it is criticising the curse of the fad and how we are suckers for anything new, flashy, and vapid; Or it is a sugar coated parable exploring the venal intentions of tech companies in using their products to profit from us?

It seems to be a bit of all of these, the ambiguity coming from the obvious overlap, allowing the film to work for different audience ages. Aesthetically and production wise, everything else is what we have come to expect from a CGI film, even down to Donka being a traditional (read: stereotype) immigrant matriarch – speaking in broken English, always cooking, and tormenting the family goat. Her character is amusing but too much of a lazy caricature even for a kids film.

Younger audiences won’t care though, as they are sufficiently catered for with the comic antics and the pure relationship at the heart of the story between Barney and Ron. A cross between R2-D2 and Eve from Wall-E, I‘m amazed Ron hasn’t been the big toy seller for this past Christmas, unless that would be too ironic! He is a fun robot though, his rogue operating system allowing him to stand out against the tsunami of conforming B-bots.

Depending on whether you want to scorn pernicious tech companies for 100-minutes or enjoy some bubbly escapist fun, Ron’s Gone Wrong covers both tastes, naturally leaning closer to the latter but not to its detriment. Boisterous if safe and slightly derivative entertainment.