Dir: Jean-Philippe Vine, Sarah Smith. Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Jack Dylan Grazer, Olivia Colman, Ed Helms, Justice Smith, Rob Delaney. PG, 106 mins.
“What if you could have the perfect friend?”, Marc (Justice Smith), the rare tech bro born with a soul, announces to an enraptured crowd. In Ron’s Gone Wrong, a new animation from under the Disney umbrella, Marc is the genius mind claiming to have discovered the algorithm for friendship: a web of likes, dislikes, and hobbies that can connect children across the world through the form of an unwaveringly loyal, bubble-like robot known as the B*Bot. But what exactly has he done outside of turning people into data sets? And how is this different from the rest of modern technology’s drive to encroach on every tangible and intangible facet of human existence?
But Ron’s Gone Wrong has attempted a far more nuanced take on the subject than the paranoid technophobia of Black Mirror and its many successors. The film chooses to refrain from depicting the younger generations as bone-headed brats, while acknowledging the hypocrisy of parents admonishing their children while barely ever looking up from their iPhones.
Barney Pudowski (Luca’s Jack Dylan Grazer) is the only kid in his class without a B*Bot. His father Graham (Ed Helms) can’t afford one, since his tacky knick-knack business is failing to attract much interest and his mother-in-law (a very funny Olivia Colman) is a constant source of chaos who lets a chicken roam around the kitchen. Graham brushes off the B*Bot as an unnecessary nuisance, all while his fingers tap furiously away at his phone screen. The point here is not, necessarily, that technology is bad, but rather that its pursuit of perfection robs us of the real beauty of connection. When his father brings home a damaged B*Bot, named Ron (Zach Galifianakis) after the first letters of his barcode, Barney learns that “the perfect friend” might not be what anyone truly wants in the first place.
As Ron’s Gone Wrong is a former 20th Century Fox project now absorbed into Disney, the B*Bots must of course come in Marvel and Star Wars-themed skins. But the creep of corporate interference is far less obvious here than in something like the Ryan Reynolds-fronted Free Guy. The character design feels individual, with the globular B*Bots contrasted against blockier, exaggerated human features.
While, from a distance, the film has all the basic hallmarks of a Pixar product – the A-list voice cast, the stirring message, a pop sensibility – it’s in fact the very first movie put out by Locksmith Animation, a British-run studio founded by Sarah Smith and Julie Lockhart as a new base for computer-animated family films in the UK. There’s a mainstream, global scope to the film, but Smith and Peter Bayham’s script isn’t without the small quirks and observations native to British comedy. The scene where Ron first boots up is particularly well-observed: a hall of fame of small irritations, as the dial-up sound recognisable to anyone alive in the Nineties screeches away in the background. To admit that technology was purely a force for evil would be to pretend that sound doesn’t invite even the smallest pang of nostalgia. Ron’s Gone Wrong is, at the very least, honest.