Ron’s Gone Wrong
A socially awkward middle schooler learns the value of friendship when he bonds with a malfunctioning robot companion in Sarah Smith, Jean-Philippe Vine and Octavia E. Rodriguez’ Ron’s Gone Wrong.
Animation aimed at kids is often a great vehicle for exploring relevant thought provoking issues that people young and old encounter on a daily basis. In the case of Ron’s Gone Wrong the issue at hand is the pressures associated with social media and the perceived need to always be present as well as relevant.
The issue is covered through a science fiction lens with the addition of B*Bots; companion robots that do all the things we associate with smartphones as well as providing artificial companionship. They follow the kids around and always stay within 6 feet while constantly reminding them to reach out to the followers they have and to grow their social circle. It isn’t treated as a nefarious invention -at least not at first- with the early messaging being around how technology can help young people make connections with those around them. The kids live stream, send out friend requests, display their interests on the skin of their B*Bots and all sorts of other things that exhibit their personality to anyone who might be interested. In some ways it extends an olive branch that gets around the awkwardness of starting interactions but in others it represents a barrier to those who lack the assistance the B*Bot provides.
Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer) is the kid at school who doesn’t have a B*Bot and as a result he exists on the social fringes, unable to make connections because others consider him to be odd. He comes from a poor family so doesn’t have the same financial advantages that his peers enjoy which creates problems for him. His fear of recess is particularly poignant because he understands that a gulf exists between him and his classmates but can’t do anything about it as they look down on him because of what he doesn’t have. It’s an intensely relatable problem and shines a light on anyone ostracised for any reason. The film makes it very clear through Barney being the only kid in school without a B*Bot though there are hints that some of his classmates who have one aren’t on the same wavelength as those around them so the range of difficulties are at least acknowledged.
Ron’s Gone Wrong does a great job fleshing out Barney’s world. Outside of school he lives with his dad, Graham (Ed Helms); a wannabe inventor who comes up with products nobody wants and his gran Donka (Olivia Colman); best described as an eccentric who displays her love for her family in unconventional ways. Barney’s mother died some years prior and there’s a strong implication that Graham has never really moved on from it so exists in a state of stagnation where that loss overwhelms the family. There’s definite love there but also an ignorance of Barney’s needs which holds him back. It’s because of this as well as the financial issues that Graham’s choices have created that Barney exists apart from his classmates.
Things change significantly when Graham realises that Barney is an outcast at school and looks to rectify this by purchasing a B*Bot for his birthday. All he can manage is to buy one that fell off a delivery truck in a back alley which means that it’s a faulty unit. Since it can’t connect to the network it doesn’t contain the features that the units owned by Barney’s classmates have so it only functions on a very basic level. This enables the film to explore the concept of friendship and what actually defines it. Barney has a very particular idea of what he expects from a friend and tries to build his B*Bot around that. The beauty of it is that Barney’s understanding of what defines friendship is skewed because he doesn’t actually have any friends so it’s a profound learning experience for him.
Barney’s B*Bot that he eventually dubs Ron (Zack Galifianakis) isn’t sentient but is highly interactive so Barney can easily fill in the gaps. He starts off by teaching Ron how to be his friend by highlighting everything that he expects and slowly modifies his understanding of what friendship is as the narrative progresses. Ron’s unpredictable nature throws up complications throughout as his limited programming works to understand the provided input. Some of the results of this are hilarious and others are deeply concerning but in ways that are thought provoking.
One of the emerging ideas through Barney’s connection to Ron is acceptance. Friendship is always about accepting someone as they are rather than how you would like them to be. Ron may not be sentient and is definitely a faulty version of what he’s supposed to be but Barney deciding to keep him as he is means he has to accept him just the way he is. This means it’s impossible for him to shape Ron into exactly the type of friend that he wants and he has to accept him for what he is even if that sometimes means he’s difficult to deal with. It’s a really endearing and well developed journey that Barney takes towards fully accepting Ron as a unique and wonderful addition to his life that won’t always be easy to deal with. That lesson extends to some of the other young characters in the film who have to learn to accept Barney as he is.
The friendship idea is the best developed and plays out wonderfully but there are others at play that are mixed in their execution. Late on the idea of mining personal data for the benefit of corporations is introduced and promptly pushed aside. It’s identified as a problem that the personal information of children is being exploited for profit but there’s no interest in making anything of it beyond being one of a collection of problems the corporation that created the B*Bots are responsible for.
Another idea the film grazes is conflating social media engagement with worth. Many of the young characters are chasing viewers, likes, an increase in their friends list and general external validation from strangers. One character experiences notoriety for the wrong reasons and has her self worth destroyed because countless people the world over are laughing at her while others feel worthless because their platform is far smaller than that of others. One character even questions when all of this started to matter as if the turning point was so gradual that it wasn’t noticed. It’s a relevant notion that is interesting when addressed but doesn’t receive a lot of attention despite it being one of the major pillars the film is built on.
The focus is on friendship and how that can grow which allows for varied content but touching on different ideas that are equally interesting with little interest in developing them fully adds up to a collection of missed opportunities. On a narrative level the film loses track of itself at different points and starts to become something else before looping back to how it started. It’s not enough to derail the experience but there are confusing diversions that don’t quite work.
Despite the flaws, the experience overall is thought provoking, heart-warming in places and heartbreaking in others. Barney is an unconventional protagonist with flaws to overcome, Ron is a lovable companion with lots of personality and the world the film inhabits is well built with a lot of texture to it. When combined with stunning animation and some memorable set piece moments Ron’s Gone Wrong is very much an enjoyable and timely exploration of friendship in the social media age.
An enjoyable and timely exploration of friendship in the social media age that is thought provoking, heart-warming in places and heartbreaking in others.. Barney is an unconventional and compelling protagonist who has a lot of flaws to overcome and a great deal of challenges in his life to deal with. Positioning him on the social fringes being separated from his peers because of his financial situation as well as being considered odd by his classmates works really well. His faulty B*Bot Ron allows for a deep exploration of the notion of friendship starting with how Barney perceives an ideal version of it and progressing to him learning how it actually works. Ron isn’t sentient but is highly interactive so Barney can fill in the gaps. His unpredictability causes problems for Barney while promoting the idea that friendship means accepting others as they are rather than what you want them to be. This lesson extends to other young characters who have to accept Barney as he is. Other ideas are thrown in that are mixed in their execution such as corporations mining personal data to enhance their profits. It’s identified as a problem but very little is done with it. The film also grazes the idea of conflating social media engagement with self worth. It doesn’t receive enough attention despite being one of the pillars the film is built on. Narratively the film diverts in confusing directions before looping back to where it started. It’s not enough to derail the experience but they don’t quite work. Despite the flaws the experience overall is thought provoking, heart-warming in places and heartbreaking in others. The animation is stunning and there are memorable set piece moments as well.
- Barney as an engagingly unconventional protagonist
- clearly establishing the school social setup and that Barney doesn’t fit within it
- strong coverage of Barney’s family life and how that contributes to his social standing
- Ron being a lovable companion with lots of personality
- exploring the notion of friendship through Barney trying to shape Ron through his understanding of it
- Barney learning the realities of friendship
- Ron’s unpredictability bringing in the idea that friendship is about accepting people for who they are rather than who you’d like them to be
- grazing the issue of conflating social media engagement with self worth
- a thought provoking, heart-warming and heartbreaking viewing experience
- excellent animation
- creative set piece moments
- narrative diversions that don’t quite work
- some of the ideas not being developed in much detail
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