“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” No matter how much we rely on technology to do things for us, we often lose a little piece of ourselves in the process. Sure, we may remember things more easily by writing them down, but then we begin to rely on paper and pen to catalogue the stories of our families, rather than continuing an oral tradition. Communication in the Age of COVID-19 took a turn toward the more accessible as more and more people were forced into using Zoom or other streaming programs to make connections, but we handed over our privacy in the process. With every step forward to make our lives easier, there’s a loss that we may not recognize until it’s too late. Of all the themes 20th Century Studio’s animated film Ron’s Gone Wrong explores, this was not the one I expected to resonate the most. Written by co-director Sarah Smith (Arthur Christmas) and Peter Baynham (Arthur Christmas), the story is one of a world in which everyone can have a digital companion who removes the burden of social interaction while offering the possibility of friendship. It’s a charming notion under which lies a cautionary tale about what it means to live online.
Due to his own social awkwardness as a kid, software designer and engineer Marc (Justice Smith) decided to build a tool that could also be your friend. He called it B*Bot. Since its release by his company, Bubble, children around the world have had a friend to take with them everywhere and who has helped them find other like-minded kids to be friends with. All the kids, except Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer), whose widowed father Graham (Ed Helms) and grandmother Donka (Oliva Coleman) don’t realize just how much it means for Barney to be without one. The one they get him, though, is slightly damaged and, upon opening, can’t connect to the Bubble Network to complete the registration and software updates that will make this B*Bot Barney’s new best friend. After some frustration, Barney decides to train this bot, newly named Ron (Zach Galifianakis), how to be a best friend, but something almost always goes entirely wrong.
Unlike a typical initial review, this one will include detailed discussion of the film ahead of examining bonus features. I’ll provide a notice of when they stop, should you just want to skip to knowing what’s included in the home release.
**Start of spoilers.**
Smith and Baynham’s script is undeniably sweet, putting forward notions that all children would be wise to learn: don’t seek validation from external sources. Having struggled to learn this myself, even as an adult, if we can help children find self-assurance without the attention from millions of strangers, the way we all interact and engage might be just a little gentler. That the film starts off by introducing the B*Bots and then Barney, we’re sort of tricked into thinking that having the B*Bot is exactly what we need. “Oh, wow! Wouldn’t it be nice to be so easily connected to people who like what I like?” “Wouldn’t it be great to feel less pressure to talk to strangers when this machine can do the research for me and just tell me who would be my friend?” There are some small hints soon after we meet Barney that suggest that algorithms aren’t the best measure for identifying companionship and those hints grow bigger and bigger as the story goes on. For instance, we’re introduced to the popular girl Savannah (Kylie Cantrall), a budding social media influencer, early on who doesn’t think her fellow classmate is worth connecting with because her B*Bot doesn’t find a commonality. Yet, around the midway point, Savannah her online persona shattered when she’s made into a global meme after an accident, reducing her to hating each notification of adoration more and more with each word from her B*Bot. In the flash of an instant, her entire life, real and fabricated moments alike, are turned into something the world mocks, delighting in her shame and creating escalating trauma. It would be funny if it weren’t so true how quickly the anonymity of the Internet allows for cruelty with little consequence. “Don’t read the comments” is a popular adage for a reason. But there is hope in the darkness of the online world: Ron and his lack of programming.
Because of his incomplete programming, he’s not bound by rules except the ones Barney tries to teach him. He’s like a young child, but with the capability to hurt or maim (it’s here that Ron’s Gone Wrong reminded me of childhood favorite Short Circuit (1986) minus the terrible culture appropriation). There is, of course, danger in a child instructing a robot in what he should and shouldn’t be doing, but it’s a kids’ film and, frankly, the kids in it have more sense than the adults. This is both a feature and bug within Ron’s Gone Wrong as Marc’s idealism blinds him to the invasion of privacy his creation offers while Marc’s business partner Andrew (Rob Delaney) serves as the film’s villain as all he sees are dollar signs in his decision making. We, the audience, are meant to see Andrew as the bad guy because he’s (a) only concerned about Ron’s existence as it will lead to lawsuits, (b) sees the children as little more than sources for datamining, and (c) has no issue with spying on children via the B*Bots in their homes. There’re multiple levels of ick that Ron’s Gone Wrong isn’t ready or capable of exploring, but teetering on the edge of it may inspire some parents to discuss with their children digital literacy and privacy.
This said, Ron’s Gone Wrong really is a sweet film about choosing your tribe and, yes, it really is about the real, physical friends you make along the way of your journey in life. Friends don’t hang out of obligation or reward, but because they want to. They learn things and remember them because they want to. I consider it a major turning point in the film when Ron realizes that Barney’s afraid of the dark, has been since his mother died, so Ron emits a glow from underneath Barney’s bed to help him relax. He wasn’t instructed, he just noticed, like friends do. This comes full circle when Barney tries to recover Ron’s programming and shuts down the light, realizing that his friend would start to glow to protect him from the rising darkness. It’s movie logic, to be sure, but beautiful in its depiction of the resilience of true friendship.
**End of spoilers.**
As of this writing, you can enjoy Ron’s Gone Wrong via a Disney+ subscription or by purchasing it in on physical or digital formats. Through Disney+ you can watch the film in 4K UHD in Dolby Vision with Dolby Atmos sound. That’s great, but the only bonus feature you get is a trailer for the film and you can only watch it via the Disney+ app. No sub, no access. Purchasing it comes with two featurettes, a Liam Payne music video for “Sunshine,” and that same trailer. It’s not much more to extend the experience, but it’s also yours to own, when acquired on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, or DVD. (The digital one is more of a payment to rent the license that can always be revoked, just FYI.) The first featurette is “A Boy and His B*Bot: When Jack Met Zach,” an almost four-minute featurette of co-stars Zach Galifianakis and Jack Dylan Grazer goofing around with each other as they talk about the film and joke about each other’s differences. It’s cute, but not necessarily informative. If you want that, the 16-minute “Making Ron Right” is where you want to go. You get details from Smith and Baynham, as well as from co-director Jean-Philippe Vine (Shaun the Sheep) and other members of the cast and crew, regarding the making of the film. Considering this isn’t Coleman’s first animated feature this year (the superb The Mitchells vs. The Machines), actually hearing her talk about the difficulty of communicating the performance with just her voice was fascinating. There’re also details about the thought that went into creating the visual elements of the city in which the story takes place, how everything is just a little off, a little uneven, to highlight the naturalness of human life versus the clean lines and edges of Bubble and the B*Bots. Plus, you get to see test footage of the fight between Ron and the bullies as staged by Smith and other members of the crew. It’s pretty charming, to be honest, which perfectly encapsulates the feeling which remains when Ron’s Gone Wrong is over.
Despite the slightly alarmist attitude running through this home release review, amid all the adult concern, is a really sweet story about friendship and connection. Who we are as kids — the hopes, the dreams, the longing for connection — never really leaves us. The wish to be loved and appreciated, especially for the things that make us unique, is universal and it makes sense that we’d want, in one way or another, a robotic friend, someone who *has* to be our companion, who’s designed exactly for that. Which is why when we find a natural connection to someone, it feels far more valuable than any digitally-created connection, because they’ve chosen us. For all the things that Ron’s Gone Wrong highlights as a concern for what technology gets wrong, there’s far more weight to the things it gets right.
Ron’s Gone Wrong Special Features:
- A Boy and His B*Bot: When Jack Met Zach – Zach Galifianakis and Jack Dylan Grazer, the voices behind Ron and Barney, sit down to chat about a fun assortment of topics. From social media to skateboarding, the two actors from two very different generations tell us all about when Jack met Zach. (3:51)
- Making Ron Right – Join cast and crew behind the scenes as they reveal the skill, dedication and friendship it took to bring this film to life. From writing the script to the voice-over booth, Locksmith’s artisans detail how they made Ron right. (16:23)
- “Sunshine” Music Video – Song from the motion picture Ron’s Gone Wrong, performed by Liam Payne. (2:57)
- Theatrical trailer (2:04)
*bonus features vary by product and retailer
Available 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD December 7th, 2021.
Available on digital and Disney+ December 15th, 2021.
For more information, head to the Ron’s Gone Wrong website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.