An animated comedy of mixed messaging, thin humor and indifferent entertainment value, “Ron’s Gone Wrong” still has every chance of winning younger viewers over with its heart. That depends on how much affection kids can summon up for a cute robot.
The animation’s striking — in that pristine, plasticized CGI state-of-the-art way. But after a promising opening act, it never came together for me, never gelled into essential viewing or anything more than cinematic baby sitting.
The story is a sentimental mash-up of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” “Short Circuit,” “E.T.” and “Wall-E” centered around a middle school lad with no friends surrounded by kids with robot friends, the latest innovation from an Apple knockoff called Bubble.
Its hip young co-founder (voiced by Justice Smith) wants to “give the world a new best friend,” a rolling pinto bean called a Bubble Bot, or “B*Bot.” It works on “my friendship algorithm,” Marc claims. You turn it on, it logs into “The Bubble Network” and B*Bot “learns everything about you” and becomes the “best friend” that shares your interests, with all sorts of game, media sharing and cosplay possibilities.
His unhip partner Andrew (Rob Delaney) is older and a LOT more cynical.
“Think of all the DATA we can harvest!”
All young Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer) knows is that every other kid in Nonsuch Middle School has one. And he’s the most friendless of them all — teacher-takes-pity-on-him friendless.
But his Old World grandma (Oscar winner Olivia Colman) and widowed “novelty toy” entrepreneur Dad (Ed Helms) haven’t noticed how he craves a digital friend. When he comes home from school, too shy to pass out invitations to a family-hosted birthday party, they get a clue. But a trip to the Bubble store is a no go.
“Three month VAIT?” Donka (Granny) fumes. “Vat IZZ ziss? Stalinest RUSSIA?”
But they score a “fell off a truck” B*Bot, and Barney is elated. Until the thing won’t boot up. Until it seems to have no capacity to do anything they’re designed to do — learn, mimic, entertain and befriend.
Until it slowly trots though its limited-bandwidth collection of possible names for the kid who is supposed to be his new friend, and settles on “Absalom.”
Barney fumes, dismisses, gripes about “taking him back” to the store.
But when the B*Bot, whom he eventually calls “Ron” (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) after the first three letters of his serial number, shows both a vulnerable need-to-study-to-learn side, and a glitchy tendency to assault kids who pick on Barney, the boy warms to his bot and becomes protective, even when Ron’s brand of mayhem and missteps get the attention of Bubble, which knows a defective product lawsuit when it sees one.
A couple of things stand out in this screenplay. Barney and pretty much all the kids that interact with him are little more than the most superficial of character sketches, with nary a hint of interior lives.
The rough edges are rubbed off of everyone. Even the “bullying” here is softcore.
And the “moral” of the story is a marvel of “have it both ways” sermonizing. Kids falling for this “latest thing” “fad” are missing out on real human interaction and getting out of doors and out in the world. Bad. But B*Bot is supposed to use its data mining to help kids find other kids with similar interests — gaming, “Star Wars,” music, etc.
“I am for friends,” Ron announces, his double-meaning Prime Directive.
So, B*Bots are good?
“Ron’s Gone Wrong” doesn’t find many laughs, although parents and older viewers may get a chuckle out of the sound effects of his boot-up. We hear a dial-up modem for the first time in nearly 20 years. The selfie gags and self-involved/digitally-addicted kids bits are inoffensively played-out in nature.
But to its credit, start-up production house Locksmith and the production team which includes “Arthur Christmas” cowriters, and a co-director from that film as well as a couple of first-time directors, ensure that “Ron” always errs on the side of “sweet.”
Where Ron goes wrong is in the hunt for laughs, with even the slapstick mostly pretty tame stuff. Where “Ron” goes right is in its compassion, a digitally animated cartoon about a robot that truly only hits its sweet spot in the finale.
Rating: PG, some rude material, thematic elements and language
Cast: The voices of Zach Galfianakis, Jack Dylan Grazer, Olivia Colman, Ed Helms and Justice Smith
Credits: Directed by Sarah Smith, Jean-Philippe Vine and Octavio E. Rodriguez, scripted Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith. A Locksmith Animation/20th Century Studios release.
Running time: 1:45