Modern animation often sets out with three distinct goals – to be riotously funny, visually striking and to have a beating heart of humanity at its core that also imparts a meaningful message.
It’s a tricky trio of things to keep in balance and not every animated features well, or sometimes at all; one film however that can straight to the top of the class in all respects (“A” grades all around!) is Ron’s Gone Wrong, a film that on the surface looks slight and goofy as hell but which ends up being one of the wisest and most emotionally resonant things you’ll watch this year.
Directed by Sarah Smith (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Baynham) and Jean-Philippe Vine, Ron’s Gone Wrong centres on lonely schoolboy, Barney Pudowski (Jack Dylan Grazer) who lives with his loving but business-oriented dad Graham (Ed Helms) and his adorably idiosyncratic Russian expat grandmother Donka (Olivia Coleman), loves rock collecting but who wishes his old friends, Savannah (Kylie Cantrall), Noah (Cullen McCarthy), Ava (Ava Morse) and Rich (Ricardo Hurtado) would give him the time of day.
Instead they devote all their time to their B-bots, styled as “Your best friend out of the box”, cute, oval-shaped, highly-customisable robotic companions released by the Bubble corporation who instantly connect to their user’s entire online profile and become the most perfect companion ever.
Accompanying their child friends everywhere and capable of knowing every thing about them, the B-bots, created by idealistic, kind-hearted Bubble CEP Marc Weidell (Justice Smith) are all the rage, so good at being the perfect friend that all kids care about is doing pranks (Rich) or becoming a pint-sized influencer (Savannah) with real human connection coming a very distant second.
As sage commentary on the role of modern technology in kids’ lives go, Ron’s Gone Wrong is far more subtle in its messaging than you might expect.
Granted, it becomes readily apparent that Barney, already an outlier at school, neither reviled nor embraced, is far behind in the popularity stakes, but so pervasive and all-encompassing are the B-bots that he soon realises that the only road to any kind of social interaction, limited as it is, can only come from having a B-bot of his own.
Alas his dad decides a rock collecting kid is a better option, leaving Barney resigned to the fact that he will always be alone, even more so now that he can never be as good a friend as Weidell’s algorithm allows the B-Bots to be.
But what is a film called Ron’s Gone Wrong if Ron, the happily malfunctioning B-bot never turns up, and so, by events best left to a viewing of this adorably witty, clever and warmhearted film, Barney and Ron meet and everything goes gloriously, life-changing wrong.
Very, very, very wrong.
Well, at least according to Bubble, whose CEO loves the idea that one of their bots is defying its programming and crafting his own identity but whose COO Andrew Morris (Rob Melaney), who is way more mercenary that his co-founder, sees nothing but a PR nightmare and declining sales.
So, while Barney starts to learn that his defective bot, who thanks to his glitch, only has things starting with “A” programmed into him (meaning he is forced to call Barney “Absolom” which honestly never stops being funny), may be the best thing, and friend, that ever happened to him, Andrew seeks to get rid of him by any means possible.
It’s not an easy task with Barney moving from being sceptical of his messily chaotic B-bot friend whose deficient coding, at least by product standards, and wanting to return him (no, no, the Crusher!) to devoting himself to saving is broken buddy who is every bit as much an outlier as his owner.
In his pursuit of Ron’s destruction, Andrew becomes the bad guy of the piece, uniting an unexpected group of family and friends in not only saving Barney and Ron, who is so fantastically over the top hilarious that you’ll instantly fall in love with his manic individuality, which ends up, temporarily at least, infecting all the other bots with divergent bots that causes safety controls to switch off, creating what one character terms “Mad Max meets Sesame Street“.
As descriptions go, it’s pretty much perfect, but while it’s a fun to describe a part of the film, it by no means conveying the full scope of a film that seamlessly combines humour and heart and some sagely-delivered wisdom on the meaning of true friendship and the considerations that must come with a modern online presence, especially if you’re a kid.
The wonderful thing is that all that wise messaging never gets in the way of one of the funniest animated features to be released in 2021.
Much of the comedy stems from Ron himself, who as he learns, becomes precisely the sort of person you’d want in your corner – he defends Barney against Rich and his bullying cronies, teaches his young charge more than afew life lessons and demonstrates true friendship that supersedes programming, leaving him well ahead of his fellow B-bots who are only capable of being what their limited coding enables, coding which, by the way, can be used for nefarious surveillance and data-gathering purposes, the existence of which in the plot also marks Ron’s Gone Wrong as a pithy piece of social commentary on the omnipresent place of modern tech in our lives.
That’s not it’s main message however.
Where Ron’s Gone Wrong really entertains, and hits the heart hard too is when it explores, with empathy and real insight, what it’s likely to be alone in a digital age where, thanks to social media and instant messaging and the like, we are never supposed to ever be alone.
But while technology has its place – the film never once condemns the B-bots as evil, simply pointing to the fact that they have a role, as does actual connection and interaction with fellow human beings – it should only ever exist in the context of rich, affirming and supportive humanity, something the kids learn along the way as events conspire to put Barney and Ron on the run and a whole of issues front and centre for a lot of characters.
Ron’s Gone Wrong is a near-perfect blend of bright, affecting storytelling, thoughtful, clever messaging, vividly-realised characters (especially Ron who is a goofy, scary, hilariously honest delight in every way) and a plot that sits beautifully between manic and meditative, all held together by animation that serves the story beautifully.
It is also a neat reminder that while trinkets and toys are fun, and engaging with people via technology has real benefits and blessings, it can’t exist without real people to give it context and meaning, an important message that Ron’s Gone Wrong delivers faultlessly with humour, heart and a healthy dose of manic, blue-cleansing energy that will leave all the better for having immersed yourself in it.