Just had a chance to preview the new family animated film Ron’s Gone Wrong, which is about – surprise! – friendship, and how our devices are proving an obstacle to making meaningful connections. Instead of just reviewing the film, I thought it would be more interesting to talk about the theme and the ideas within the movie. At the end of this essay, I’ll give you an assessment and a go/no-go recommendation.
You don’t have to travel far to see that both children and adults spend a surprising amount of their time staring at the tiny screen in front of them. It’s personal and it’s endlessly appealing, but are digital friends actually your real friends, or are they just a virtual abstraction? There’s also a concerning level of narcissism that is inherent in social media too; it’s all about ME. I fall into the trap too, of course, posting photos on Instagram when I’m traveling and checking later to see if anyone liked the image or left a comment.
In the movie Ron’s Gone Wrong, smartphones are replaced by autonomous little droids manufactured by a trendy electronics company called “Bubble”. It’s definitely not a coincidence that it rhymes with Apple. In an echo of the cautionary horror film Chucky, the droids in this film are “your best friend out of the box”, designed by robotics wunderkind Marc (voice of Justice Smith) with the company actually run by money-hungry CEO Andrew (Rob Delaney).
Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a socially awkward nerd in his class at Nonsuch Elementary School. He lives in a run-down house in the suburbs with an unsuccessful father (Ed Helms) and his nutty grandma Donka (Olivia Coleman). He has no friends and is teased in school on a daily basis, by kids with who he used to be friends: Rich (Ricardo Hurtado) and Savanna (Kylie Cantrall). He doesn’t bother distributing invites to his birthday because he knows everyone will find an excuse to skip it.
Meanwhile, Bubble has introduced the B-Bot, a wonderous AI-powered ‘droid that’s perfect for kids and is designed around the “friendship algorithm”. It learns about its child then can suggest other children with whom they could be friends. Predictably, however, it’s all through the digital world, so soon every kid in school is putting “skins” on their B-Bot, posting live video, doing pranks, all in the zeal to get likes and followers.
Barney, of course, is the last to get a B-Bot and when he does, his father is forced to cut corners and ends up getting him a damaged unit, one that isn’t properly loaded with the Bubble friendship algorithm. It doesn’t learn Barney’s name, it calls him “Insert Registered Name” and endlessly malfunctions with humorous results. Along the way, though, Barney and “Ron”, as it ends up being called, become friends.
What’s interesting about this is that their friendship goes through two distinct phases, first with Barney telling Ron that to be his friend, Ron has to be obsessed with everything Barney likes, a mirror, a reflection. That’s not the basis for a friendship with any animate object, so the second phase – the heart of the movie – has Barney learning from the ‘bot Ron what makes a true friendship, and finally truly befriending his surprisingly sentient robot pal (voiced by Zach Galifianakis).
The film is amusing even if it’s really a retread of so many family stories that have gone before. But in the age of digital devices, Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat streaks, it’s a good reminder to our children and ourselves that friendship involves giving, not taking. A friend isn’t someone who wants you as a fan, but someone who you can help and support, offering sympathy when things are tough and celebrating when it’s going well. Friendship is also based on learning and appreciating all facets of someone else, not just an individual facet. Fun and bubbly in livestreams, they might actually lead a lonely life off-camera, and while their Instagram Reels might be in exotic locales, they might well be just as overwhelmed by school and family as everyone else.
From my own life, I can only conclude that we live in an era where genuine friendships are difficult to cultivate. People are happy to hang out when the going’s good, but if there’s a challenge in their lives, they tend to vanish, rather than reach out for help and support. I do it too, though I try to be open to help from others. Needless to say, what we post isn’t who we are.
Ultimately, while Ron’s Gone Wrong is a highly predictable animated family film, it’s also entertaining with some funny sight gags and wry lines. Are the characterizations lazy, from the controlling Bubble CEO to the live stream star who fails on camera and finds none of her friends care about her anymore? Yes. But it still might be enough to get a conversation going with your kids. If they can just look up from their phones long enough to watch. Recommended for families, particularly those with children obsessed with their digital devices.