'Ron's Gone Wrong' has the movie code all jumbled
There's a clear message in the new film "Ron's Gone Wrong," and that message is to stop watching films like "Ron's Gone Wrong."
A derivative tale about a middle schooler and his quirky computer sidekick, the animated film seems to want to preach we should all disconnect from our devices and restore human contact. But then what will the filmmakers do with all that adorable merch?
"Ron's Gone Wrong" thinks it's being subversive when its really being very corporate. It wastes its voice cast — including Olivia Colman, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis — and it never really connects, ending as awkwardly as a modern-day seventh-grader with a rock collection.
That actually perfectly describes Barney Pudowski (Jack Dylan Grazer), a sweet but lonely kid who dreads recess since all his classmates have totally cool high-tech bots, which are egg-shaped walking, talking, digitally connected devices suspiciously looking like Eve from "Wall-E."
The bots are hailed by their creators as "the perfect friend" and a "whole new world of connection." They unveil the bots at a hype-filled Apple-like event, which will leave adults sniggering. "How can you have fun offline? It's against nature!" says one co-creator.
Soon everyone in middle school has a bot, except Barney, who is even further ostracized. The bots serve as a kind of Sorting Hat — connecting like-minded owners and then capturing and broadcasting video, making friend requests, liking posts and hyping their owners.
Barney, with ears that stick out like satellite dishes, craves his own bot, but his widower father and eccentric grandmother are too poor and ideologically opposed. "I don't want you addicted to some device," says his dad, who sells novelty goods and is addicted to his device.
But seeing their son so morose, grandma and dad buy a model that has literally fallen off the back of a truck. It looks like a regular bot, but it is damaged, has lost code and can't connect to the internet. It needs to be taught what friendship is.
Co-directors Sarah Smith, Jean-Philippe Vine and Octavio E. Rodriguez, working from a script by Smith and Peter Baynham, could have gone many ways from this premise. But they choose a surprisingly violent, sluggish path as Barney and his bot, Ron, explore the concept of friendship while fleeing from the tech giant that created it and who wants to destroy it, like "E.T."
By now, we're very used to movies that feature kids with adorable robots, from "Short Circuit" and "The Iron Giant" to "Big Hero 6," "Next Gen" and Bumblebee of the "Transformers." We get it: These steel, childlike creatures somehow make us more human.
But "Ron's Gone Wrong" treads this same path to an unsatisfactory end. A film about friendship that mocks modern high-tech devices as mere data-harvesting units built by companies only interested in share price ends with those very same bots still in everyone's lives.
It's a film that screams for everyone to deactivate their robots and go play stickball. But then what would happen to the toy versions of the bots in every Happy Meal, the airline commercial tie-in or the Walmart night-lights?
The film comes out as heat is being put on TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook about high-tech's role in teen behavior and addiction. Research shows some platforms can damage mental health and body image, especially among teen girls.
"Ron's Gone Wrong" cynically skewers tech-makers but doesn't adequately address the machines they make. It doesn't even dissuade the idea that algorithm-based steel toys can indeed be our friends. It apes too many films already out there and even its theme song — "Sunshine" by Liam Payne — is a pale imitation of a Maroon 5 song. "Ron's Gone Wrong" has indeed gone wrong.
"Ron's Gone Wrong," a 20th Century Studios release that hits theaters Friday, is rated PG for rude material, mature thematic elements and strong language. Running time: 107 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.