New animation Ron’s Gone Wrong (from 20th Century Studios which these days, sort of means Disney) is a bit of a Trojan horse. While its setting and cast are resolutely American it’s actually the brainchild of British studio Locksmith Animation, and it’s not hard to see this film’s playful, wicked sense of humour as a reflection of that origin.
The story is familiar – a new craze is sweeping the schoolyard, and every kid in town seems to have their hands on the hot new toy. But this time it’s not Pokémon Cards, Tazzos or even iPhones distracting the students – instead they’re glued to slick, high-tech robots called B-Bots, which sort of function as a smartphone-meets-Furby “best friend” to their owners.
Created by a standard Apple/Google-alike company called Bubble (hence Bubble-bots), these creations can talk, play games, project images, sing, take photos, “dress” as different characters (including, handily, a few Marvel and Star Wars figures presumably borrowed from Disney) and even come with a basic kind of AI.
They’re perfect, in other words, marketed as “your best friend out of the box” – and the only kid who doesn’t have one is our friendless hero Barney (Jack Dylan Glazer), who struggles with loneliness and his eccentric family (including Ed Helms as a hapless WFH dad and Olivia Colman as a wild Eastern European grandmother) and longs to be part of the crowd.
Soon, he gets his own B-Bot – but there’s a catch. This unit is damaged, unable to connect to the internet and missing key programming. Horrified, Barney has to watch as his longed-for gift shouts bizarre phrases, destroys his possessions and regularly fails to perform the most basic functions. Its one remaining imperative? To be Barney’s best friend, whether he likes it or not.
Soon nicknamed “Ron” thanks to its serial number, this broken bot (voiced with upbeat glee by The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis) is entertainingly eccentric, retaining no information about the world except words beginning with A (due to its halted information download), creaking with the familiar internet dial-up tone when asked questions and regularly losing arms, legs and pixelated facial features as it whacks into its surroundings.
This film largely lives or dies on whether you find Ron sweet and funny or annoying, and happily Galifianakis nails the performance, finding a happy balance between Siri and a small child asking questions and loading every sentence he speaks with hilarity. Though at least at first, Barney isn’t so entertained.
The obvious question – why doesn’t Barney just take it back to be fixed? – is neatly sidestepped, and as he spends more time with his malfunctioning android it’s easy to believe in their burgeoning friendship, more muddled and combative than the sanitised playtime offered by the other B-Bots.
The film’s creators have described it as the difference between getting an iPhone and rescuing a wilful dog – the latter is often frustrating and less slick, but is ultimately a more fun and rewarding experience in the end. Though of course, the tech titans of Bubble (voiced by Rob Delaney and Justice Smith) don’t see it that way, and are soon on course to destroy Ron lest he damage their reputation and bottom line.
Barney’s choice to hide Ron instead of giving him up gives this new duo a key tenet of any preteen friendship – a shared secret – and soon they’re arguing, cracking jokes and living it up in the woods while Barney’s classmates suffer the downsides of their own data-harvesting B-Bots.
Not that this relationship is without its bumps, too. In one stand-out sequence Ron, misunderstanding his core functions, roams the town slapping “like” and “friend request” stickers on passers-by, sharing embarrassing details of Barney’s life to appeal to strangers (including one slightly risqué joke you might not see in a regular Disney movie) and dragging a load of undesirables to the playground for one of the film’s biggest and most entertaining scenes.
It’s unfortunate that after this high point the film starts to run out of steam, and an obvious endpoint – where Ron truly proves his worth to Barney, his friends and the town – is followed by another lengthy sequence that requires breaking into the Bubble facility and avoiding capture. This section of the film goes for tension but ends up feeling a bit flat, and concludes with an emotional beat that feels contrived. The film’s central message can also get a little heavy-handed, leaning into a “jeez, what if kids just put down their phones” moral (although there is one self-aware joke about this earlier in the movie).
Still, overall this film is an impressively funny and entertaining ride. On the surface, it’s easy to compare Ron’s Gone Wrong to other robot friends/tech goes bad animations of recent years (specifically Big Hero 6 and The Mitchells vs The Machines), but this film’s sense of humour and sweet central relationship help it stand out.
Will it attract as much love as those earlier releases? Perhaps not – its message gets a little muddled as it goes on, and the ending is unconvincing – but leaving the cinema, you might find yourself wistfully remembering some childhood friendships of your own. And then ordering a B-Bot for Christmas anyway.