British studio Locksmith Animation’s debut feature, “Ron’s Gone Wrong” has plenty of slapstick and small humor for kids. But adults will also be intrigued by his often scathing (albeit somewhat contradictory) critique of consumerism.
Barney (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) is the only kid in his middle school who doesn’t have a B-bot, a personalized egg-shaped digital device that combines a smartphone and a best friend. As his classmates use their B-bots to post a flurry of social media posts, Barney’s only apparent interest isâ¦ rocks.
The poor kid doesn’t have a friend in the world. He lives with his geeky father Graham (Ed Helms), who sells novelty items, and his grandmother Donka (Olivia Colman), who fled communist Bulgaria for the United States. On a fateful birthday, his grandmother manages to give Barney an obsolete version of a B-bot that fell from a truck.
This is exactly what Barney always wanted. Of course, there is a catch. All other B-bots are programmed to be like their human owners, but Ron (Zach Galifianakis) – as Barney calls his electronic familiar – isn’t fully programmed: he can’t even connect to the Internet. The device spends most of the film calling Barney “Absalom,” a curious reference to a biblical figure who often represents vanity.
So Ron is really bad.
It is clear that this horrible near future looks a lot like our present. Directors Sarah Smith, Jean-Philippe Vine, and Octavio E. Rodriguez, working from a script by Smith and Peter Baynham, pack a chilling dystopian punch, especially for a children’s film. The co-creators of the B-bot look eerily like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, and the latter character bluntly admits that B-bots are tailor-made not only to make money, but also to spy on their owners.
Some design cues are reminiscent of a more innocent time: Ron looks like he’s stepped out of an early Macintosh personal computer, a sad reminder of the good old days when the internet radiated promises of connection rather than division.
The animators make a clear distinction between the old and the new, and what they prefer is clear: Barney’s school and hometown looks utterly unremarkable, while Donka’s design sensibility old world – as seen in the decor of the home she shares with Ron – appears with bold shapes and colors. And there’s a poignant 1980s echo in Graham’s character, which resembles a cartoon version of Molly Ringwald’s sad single father, as portrayed by Harry Dean Stanton, in “Pretty in Pink.”
The tale runs out of steam in the final act. We know Barney will inevitably make a human friend, but how much will he have to depend on the device to help him? (Needless to say, the movie’s warning message is somewhat lost when you consider that you can actually purchase your own version of Ron’s Interactive Nightlight online – or a non-fully functional toy version with your next Happy Meal. .)
Not surprisingly, the film is a co-production of 20th Century Studios, a Disney affiliate. As with any other movie released today, it depends on a strong social media presence for promotion.
Yet “Ron’s Gone Wrong” dares to ask the subversive question: “How can you have fun offline?” The implied answer: Maybe you should put your device down first, maybe even the one you’re reading this review on.