“Ron’s Gone Wrong” dots its primer on friendship with chase scenes and warnings about Big Tech, with only mixed success.
Friendless young Barney (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) sort of appreciates how hard his dad works but feels his life would be so much better if he had his own awesome robot companion, as all his classmates do. The iPhone/Jordans/Pet Rock/whatever of this generation is the Bubble Bot, or B*Bot, programmed to be your “best friend out of the box.” When struggling Dad (Which parent is dead in this one? … It’s Mom!) gets Barney a damaged B*Bot named Ron (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), the robot forges an actual friendship with the boy rather than follow the product’s algorithm to simulate friendship. But free will is a bad thing, according to the corporate bad guys, so chases ensue.
Like “Free Guy,” “Ron” is a stepchild from the Disney-Fox ritual absorption. Like that Ryan Reynolds hit, it includes some meta-funny IP flexing. Here, the renamed 20th Century Studios — I know, why not at least 21st Century Studios? — sticks out its tongue at competitors and says, “We can show Marvel and Star Wars stuff and you ca-an’t!” Unfortunately, that’s where the resemblance ends, as “Free Guy” turned out to be a lively, fun time and “Ron” … at some point, it went wrong.
One suspects the original urge had something to do with showing the difference between virtual friends who “like” your posts but don’t really know you and IRL friends who may not like every post but like you. What we get instead is a robot surrogate that learns everything about you from your online activity, tells you it’s your best friend and facilitates your every desire. So not so much a “friend” as a cyber-genius servant that can also carry you around.
There’s a bit of table-thumping about how these Big Tech companies might not have your best interests at heart when taking all your data and putting cameras and microphones in your hands and home (huge surprise on that one); in the Steve Wozniak-Steve Jobs dynamic of Bubble Corp., the Jobs figure is all evil, all the time. But that’s a side thing when the film’s real aim is a lesson on how “friendship is a two-way street” and imperfection is part of the deal. And that’s all well and good, but it’s not a great bet young kids will come away with that new feather in their thinking caps.
At least one hopes they’re not that impressionable. Otherwise, they might come away from “Ron” thinking that trying to escape cars down busy streets or running away into the cold, wet woods with no protection from the elements are awesome things to do. There are quite a few questionable messages in the film, such as when Barney realizes he likes Ron after all because Ron beats up some kids he doesn’t like. This isn’t exactly “My Bodyguard.” And after all the hand-wringing by the tech empire’s Good Ones over doing things without the customer’s consent, the good guys decide the thing to do is force a huge change upon hundreds of millions of customers without their consent.
“Ron” gets a few things right. The textures are beautifully rendered, as one expects of studio animation these days. The individual B*Bots are imaginatively designed. As the Bulgarian grandmother, Olivia Colman delivers the movie’s most charming performance. Younger kids may enjoy the chases and one repeated poop joke.
But arguably the film’s greatest comic asset — Galifianakis — is squandered by a one-note delivery that’s level-less by design. Ron is equally happy to narrate good times and bad. The skilled Galifianakis does a good job of approximating a voice constructed by individually recorded words; perhaps too good a job. We lose the very specificity that the film purports to be about — the imperfections, the humanity that makes friends friends.
‘Ron’s Gone Wrong’
Rated: PG for some rude material, thematic elements and language
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 22 in general release