A lonely kid finds a robotic friend in Ron’s Gone Wrong, an animated family movie from Disney premiering at the London Film Festival. An endearing mix of earthy values and sci-fi concepts, it takes a cynical swipe at social media culture while delivering characters to care about. Chief of these is Barney Pudowski (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer), a shy child being raised by his widower father Graham (Ed Helms) and immigrant grandmother Donka (Olivia Colman).
Barney is usually ignored by the other kids at school: they’re too absorbed in their AI sidekicks called B*Bots. These are cute, egg-shaped robotic pets — roughly the size of a cat or small dog — who are connected to the internet and can change color and character to suit the needs of their owners. Their purpose is to find friends and connect people to each other. Each kid is profiled purely by their online presence, so if they “like” a band or TV show online, they get an alert when they’re near someone with common ground.
It’s a smart visualized extension of the current cyber culture, in many ways only slightly exaggerated. And it drives a huge wedge between Ron and his classmates, all of whom have parents willing and able to buy them B*Bots. When Ron finally gets his own B*Bot, Ron (Zach Galifianakis), it malfunctions — but its very flaws may just make it uniquely useful.
And so, like many a high school movie, Ron’s Gone Wrong explores privilege and popularity from the perspective of a hero who finds it hard to make friends. There’s plenty to induce sympathy: he’s bullied, for starters. And there’s also a sweet bond that develops between boy and bot, recalling everything from E.T. to Kes.
While not all the gags land, the film is often laugh-out-loud funny, whether Donka is crashing around the kitchen or schoolmate Savannah (Kylie Cantrall) is embodying everything that’s wrong about our “like”-obsessed world. Credit to the film’s writers, though, that characters such as Savannah aren’t simply one-dimensional tropes; ultimately the story peels back the layers of several kids to heartwarming effect.
The undisputed baddy here is Andrew Morris (Rob Delaney), one of the top dogs at Bubble, the company that sells the B*Bots. He’s contrasted a little too plainly by Marc (Justice Smith), the youthful and well-meaning B*Bot creator who represents the good side of social media.
Ron’s Gone Wrong ultimately tries to have its cake and eat it, but perhaps that’s the most realistic way as a Disney movie preaching off-grid living probably isn’t going to wash these days. One for all the family — just put your cellphones away first.
Disney is releasing the 20th Century Studios film October 22 in the U.S.
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