“Ron’s Gone Wrong” (2021) – “I was watching ‘Her’ by Spike Jonze, and I thought, ‘I need to make a version of this movie for my 3-year-old who’s getting lost in the iPad,’” co-director/co-writer Sarah Smith says in an Oct. 15, 2021 interview with Cinemark.
Smith, along with co-directors Jean-Philippe Vine and Octavio E. Rodriguez, made a film, and thankfully, they did not feature toddlers as their lead and supporting characters.
Instead, their movie is a middle-school animated adventure, and our hero is Barney Pudowski (Jack Dylan Grazer).
He’s a swell kid who attends Nonsuch Middle School, but he doesn’t have any close friends, and geez, no one showed up at his birthday party. To make matters worse, everyone but Master Pudowski has the latest electronic gadget, a B-Bot!
Back in the day, how many of us felt left out because “everyone else” had (warning, this critic is dating himself in a couple of places) Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, a ColecoVision, Barbie’s Dreamhouse, a cell phone, or a car?
If so, you can relate to Barney’s anxiety.
Look, you might not have been the ONLY teenager without a phone during middle school, but here, Barney is the sole B-Bot-less adolescent in town.
“You need a B-Bot to have a social life?” his dad, Graham (Ed Helms), asks.
“Yea, kind of, Dad,” Barney replies.
Okay, what’s a B-Bot?
A B-Bot resembles a 2-foot Weeble (again, dating myself), and it’s an interactive device that works like (an) Alexa or Siri. It has all of your preferences, likes, and favorites. The difference is that your B-Bot will roll along – and carry on conversations – with you 24/7. Well, except during class, but it’s on at school recess!
And you thought a smartphone sucked up all of your child’s time?
Even though Barney’s grandmother (Olivia Colman) and widower dad didn’t get his most-coveted wish for his fiesta, they secured a defective one later that evening. On the following day, he met HIS B-Bot!
The issue is that this particular one is missing some necessary code. This whitish/translucent Tic Tac doesn’t possess flashing colors or patterns or contain any of Barney’s favs. In other words, he’s offline or just a bit off. For instance, he refers to Barney as “Insert Registered Name”. Say what? The machine is a clean slate and takes every word Barney or anyone else says literally….in the most verbatim sense.
Look, this B-bot – who is later named Ron – is just different!
Smith, Vine, Rodriguez, and co-writer Peter Baynham embrace the seemingly timeless (and repetitive) cinematic theme of a teenage misfit attempting to find his way and marry it with a more recent one: too much reliance on (and the exponential reach of) social media.
“You hear all the time your kids (are) going through friendship issues, and you realize there’s this new playground they’re going into, and you can’t go with them and hold their hand and advise them. I thought we needed to make a movie where an iPad can become an animated character,” Smith says in the aforementioned Cinemark interview.
Since Ron doesn’t possess the programming to mirror and (placate to) Barney’s every predisposed whim, the two find themselves working hard to know one another. For every other teen-gizmo paring, the human counterparts simply lean on their electronic and plastic buddies as friendly Internet tools.
In Barney and Ron’s case, however, they slowly walk through the organic process of becoming buds.
Since Ron was “only born yesterday”, Zach Galifianakis might be the perfect comedic actor to play Ron. His character approaches nearly everything with childlike wonder and curiosity, and Galifianakis showcased this on-screen persona as Alan in “The Hangover” (2009) and its sequels. Although Ron isn’t hoping to ship Barney off to “Las Vegas, looking for strippers and cocaine.”
No, this is a PG-rated film all the way, and Ron hopes to build an affable bond with Barney and help him make other friends, ones in person.
Set in a picturesque – and at times, quite stunning – mid-sized town, nestled in a valley of buttes and pines (Bend, Ore., perhaps?), Smith, Vine, and Rodriguez create a robust but remote locale that serves as Barney’s physical world. The movie offers natural boundaries that force Barney to look towards neighbors, classmates, and families.
Indeed, “Ron’s Gone Wrong” resonates with some authentic teaching moments about the negative impacts that social media imprints on kids, in addition to the comic relief that Galfianakis definitely and effectively delivers here.
The problem is the screenplay wanders too much during the second half of the 106-minute runtime. For instance, Barney and Ron take an unnecessary detour into the wilderness. The story also burns calories with the tired scenario of “We were friends in elementary school, so what happened?”-theme and a silly cloak and dagger operation at the B-Bot company, Bubble, which might as well double as Google or Apple.
Yes, the cartoonish rivalry between Bubble CEO Andrew Morris (Rob Delaney) – who’s a Steve Jobs lookalike – and B-Bot creator Marc Weidell (Justice Smith) explores real-life ethical dilemmas, but the long-winded literal and figurative maze late in the third act becomes tiring.
“Ron’s Gone Wrong” might be better served with a tighter, more focused tale. Still, the film nicely balances its tones of hijinks, heart, and an authentic warning about our current daily (or hourly) personal use of social media and the data collected.
That said, let’s post this review on social media, pronto!
⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed by: Sarah Smith, Jean-Philippe Vine, and Octavio E. Rodriguez
Written by: Sarah Smith and Peter Baynham
Starring: Jack Dylan Grazer, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, and Olivia Colman
Runtime: 106 minutes
Image credits: 20th Century Studios