When Netflix released the excellent The Mitchells vs. the Machines in April, it overcame all expectations: The animation was endlessly inventive and flashy, the jokes were a dozen IQ points above the norm, its focus on Big Tech was surprisingly nuanced and it delivered its heartfelt familial arc without ever feeling preachy. A few months later and we have the rule reinforcing the much better, much funnier, much more thoughtful and visually engaging Mitchells’ exception. Ron’s Gone Wrong, the most recently patched version of that perennial kids’ movie variant, the condescending lesson slathered in bright and marketable silliness, isn’t just out of touch—it’s never seen a touchscreen. The animated comedy about a kid who falls in love with his defective robot pal—inexplicably the only one to ever malfunction in a world overrun by them—is half old fogey lecture and half Silicon Valley puff piece, built from the scrap of better movies.
As an ironically retro foil to The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Ron’s Gone Wrong takes a character flaw from that film’s rub-some-dirt-in-it Luddite dad and expands it into a premise: The children of the world, God help them, are only communicating to each other through screens! Personal robo friends (B-bots, not to be confused with The Mitchells’ PAL Maxes) stand in here for social media at large and the devices used to access it, combining likes, shared photos and videos, games and more into little mobile AirPod cases that follow their kids around. The B-bots are inflexible little beans, with arms and wheel-legs that whir around without much purpose or excitement. They seem to have had little impact on this (presumably) futuristic world, aside from a small storage area at school that’s basically B-bot lockers. They’re not particularly fun to look at, but can be digitally reskinned to whatever’s most marketable—there’s even a Darth Vader B-bot scooting around at one point. One sequence shows their capacity to bind together to form bigger and badder ‘bots—digital skins reorganizing into something representative of the new, Voltron-like beast—but it’s really the only time the animation shows a spark of imagination, and it serves little purpose other than make you think of the possibilities for the toys.
Speaking of, how do the B-bots work? Shut up! The cloud! Algorithms! That’s the movie’s response to probing young minds, delivered by the dual leadership in charge of the Bubble company: Andrew (Rob Delaney), a sales-hungry amalgamation of tech CEOs who’s surprisingly vocal about stealing data and invading privacy, and Marc (Justice Smith), one of those idealistic slacker-programmers constantly getting taken advantage of by naughty, naughty venture capitalists. Curiously, the evil corporation in The Mitchells vs. the Machines—which clearly identifies it as such, poking constant fun—is also led by a developer named Mark (Eric André), who is Black like this film’s Marc. I’m not exactly sure what to make of this strange case of simultaneous invention, but I do wonder if it’s some kind of contractual buffer they needed to put in place so that Zuckerberg doesn’t sue them into oblivion.
Ron’s Gone Wrong’s particular Zuckster has a dream of using code to help kids make friends…only, all the kids we see mostly just interact with their B-bots instead of other kids. The writers seem to forget about the “social” aspect of “social media” whenever it’s convenient, just one of many misunderstandings and bad faith assumptions this curmudgeonly movie makes. But worse than being glued to technology, we learn, is not having said technology at all. Enter Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer), who lives with his widower father (Ed Helms), vaguely Bulgarian grandmother (Olivia Colman) and conspicuous lack of consumption. Thanks to financial and cultural reasons, Barney hasn’t been in on the fad, which has left him an outcast—even worse, one must imagine, than being named “Barney.” He’s the only one in the whole school without a B-bot…until his family buys a damaged B-bot (Zach Galifianakis) that quite literally fell off a truck. Problem solved! But this B-bot is terrible: He, like the screenplay, is stuck in repetitive loops of dialogue and makes nonsensical leaps in logic. For some reason, he can’t reach the internet to download his software or Barney’s profile, which doesn’t render him inoperable, just weird. In addition to being propped up by tech nonsense that any kid in middle school—like Barney—will definitely roll their eyes at, the defective B-bot (dubbed Ron) can’t be returned…because of that whole “illegally purchased” thing.
The pair of nonrefundable lower-middle class misfits must learn to love each other. And they do, improbably developing affection—conveyed by Grazer joylessly giggling through his dialogue—thanks to, rather than in spite of, Ron’s imperfections. Instead of being an empty shell, the B-bot is miraculously more advanced than his peers, able to learn and grow. The first example of that? When Barney is bullied, Ron hauls off and beats the bully’s ass. Now here’s a real relationship, the sci-fi film says, as Barney’s classmates serve as Gen-Z straw men (hosting prank shows watched by no one, playing online games in a vacuum, or becoming influencers quickly damned by the same faceless fans they once cultivated). This one-way understanding of online culture is the film at its most pessimistic: Here are soulless gamers and vloggers, obsessed with high scores and like counts that apparently appear from thin air. This is a world where nobody comments, nobody chats, no communities exist. There are only numbers and screens. It is a world imagined by adults for whom technology and socializing are inherently incompatible. No wonder all its kids are lonely—and no wonder why this movie feels so false.
The flubbed messaging at its core is representative of Ron’s Gone Wrong’s failings in general. It’s 2021 and jokes about “What’s ‘the cloud?’ Can we go there?” serve the singular purpose of making you sound 100 years old. Galifianakis’ vocal abilities sometimes overcome the film’s misguided writing for a string of adequately goofy randomness, zipping through jokes based around Ron only having downloaded the “A” section of his database. The comedian’s chipper, deadpanned stupidity is only ever grating because of the script’s repetition—and that in itself is an achievement of his perky delivery.
And Ron’s Gone Wrong is nothing if not perky. The film’s constantly in exhausting motion: Directors Jean-Philippe Vine and Sarah Smith (who worked together in different capacities on the charming Aardman stop-motion The Pirates! Band of Misfits) keep the pace up, but because the content is excruciatingly formulaic, it feels like it’s dragging us kicking and screaming to the next expected step; meanwhile the overbearing score waves sonic flags indicating that “It’s time to have fun!” or “It’s time to feel something!” These strained sensory muscles could be overlooked if Ron’s Gone Wrong wasn’t painfully long for such a vapid movie, with every gag driven into the ground and tons of time spent on the power struggle between Marc and Andrew. (Who cares? Not kids and not me.)
Naturally, a story like this can’t be contained to a kid, his family, his school or his problem with making friends. Those stakes are too small to animate and merchandize. We need superhero-level conflict! Government and corporate interest! So, Ron’s nonconformity—again, fixable simply by running into a random Wi-Fi hotspot—gets wrapped up with the health of the Bubble company, because there’s nothing that livens up a kids movie like stock prices. Now that it’s a messy production on a global scale (taking nuts and bolts from E.T. and Short Circuit) we don’t ever have to grapple with how kids actually use technology, we don’t have to understand how kids grow out of friendships based solely on proximity when more sinister factors like income inequality come into play, and we definitely don’t have to get into what makes a friend a friend in the first place. Just buy this silly little robot, who is a defective underdog and thus morally superior to the other little robots, and continue to avoid engaging in the modern world.
At times, the throwback goofiness of Ron’s Gone Wrong can be amusingly quaint, but more often the film is humorless, sentimental tripe that couldn’t find its point if it had a dozen B-bots giving GPS directions. If you want to see a movie aimed towards a younger audience that engages with the increasing and increasingly intriguing relationship we have with technology, I can’t recommend The Mitchells vs. The Machines highly enough. Leave Ron’s Gone Wrong to its fate as the movie that grandparents will mistakenly rent in its place.
Director: Jean-Philippe Vine, Sarah Smith; co-director Octavio E. Rodriguez
Writer: Peter Baynham, Sarah Smith
Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Jack Dylan Grazer, Ed Helms, Justice Smith, Rob Delaney, Kylie Cantrall, Ricardo Hurtado, Marcus Scribner, Olivia Colman
Release Date: October 22, 2021
Jacob Oller is the Movies Editor of Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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