Were you ever that kid that had the lunch that you were ashamed of? Not because it was awful or tasted bad, but simply because it was a little bit weird? This is one of the touching details in the animated feature “Ron’s Gone Wrong” that took me back to a time when sushi was treated as suspicious. Heck, I’m sure there are places in the US where it still is and people think “Raw like Sushi” when much offered isn’t raw at all.
Yet food is a minor issue in the computer-animated science fiction comedy “Ron’s Gone Wrong.” Instead, the animated film addresses some contemporary issues about high tech and humans and how the two may prevent the users from making real connections and the dangers of social media which might even have longterm effects. Don’t worry, in this first film out of Locksmith Animation, the writers Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith have wrapped this up tidily for a family-friendly happy ending.
In this future world, a company called Bubble has introduced B-bots. As coded by altruistic young casual tech nerd Marc Weidell (Justice Smith) and marketed by the greedy older Philip (Thomas Barbusca) who provided the garage for the original build, their company is introducing B-bots: Bubble robots that are programed to be its owner’s best friend. Marc explains, “Have you ever felt completely alone?” With this B-bot you’ll have one perfect friend, who will help you find friends. “This is your new best friend in a box.” The bot learns all about you, stays within six feet of its person and helps the person find friends with common interests. It can also change skins to reflect the owner’s interests, provide transport and help taking selfies for social media success. “Welcome to the future of friendship.” Be assured, the algorithm has some safety guidelines so the B-bot can’t destroy things.
Barney Pudowski (Jack Dylan Grazer) lives with his plump grandmother, Donka Pudowski (Olivia Colman) and his widowed father, Graham Pudowski (Ed Helms). Graham works from home trying to sell novelties online, but not successfully. The grandmother is most at home in the kitchen and they embrace rural life where their neighbors do not. They have a pet goat, some-day-meant-to-be-dinner chickens and, instead of a front lawn, they have a vegetable garden. Barney rides an old-style scooter to Nonsuch Middle School. For lunch, he has a chicken’s foot. If you’ve never had chicken feet, you don’t know what you’re missing although I prefer more than one in a more stewy sauce (dim sum).
For Barney, lunch is bad, but the 18-minute recess is torture. An overly cheery teacher takes him to the “buddy bench.” From the bench, he can see all the other kids with their B-bots but they are expensive and his family can’t afford one. The buddy bench makes his isolation even worse.
Barney is so ashamed of his family that he doesn’t pass out paper invites to his birthday party although his grandmother makes sausage and other hearty foods. His father and grandmother give him junior rock hammers because Barney is interested in rocks. (That made me flashback to a rockhound romantic dilemma moment when an internet group fielded a suggestion about having rockhound matchmaking because online, no one knew I was a woman). What he really wants is a B-bot. A trio of fellow students led by prankster Rich Belcher (Ricardo Hurtado) raise his hopes, but instead of leaving him a B-bot, he finds a large rock and its not display or gem quality (If someone left a massive amethyst geode on my doorstep I wouldn’t complain).
His father and grandmother load up a black goat and go to the Bubble store, but it’s closing and there’s a three-month waitlist. It just happens that earlier in the day, someone dropped and broke a B-bot and there’s a guy in the alley willing to sell it to the Pudowskis.
The problem is, this B-bot isn’t registered and needs to be repaired. It’s not linked into the Bubble network and never gets its programming installed. When started up, the audio will have adults and parents old enough to remember dial-up internet connections a laugh.
Since Barney’s B-bot, Ron, doesn’t have the algorithm for making friends programmed into him, Barney attempts to teach him using post-its and string, just like a crime scene board you’ve seen before on various TV programs. When his classmates learn that Ron has no safety programming, they manage of reprogram theirs accordingly and it becomes a “Mad Max meets Sesame Street” recess. During this chaos, the social media queen of the school, Savannah Meades (Kylie Cantrall), is videotaped and becomes an embarrassing viral meme. Savannah, Rich and Barney had once been friends due to living proximity and age. The social hierarchy built-up in middle school changed that.
All kids will become the pawns in an adults plans. The evil Andrew, dumps Marc as CEO and makes himself CEO so he can begin using the B-bots “data harvesting units.” With the Bubble company determined to get and crush the rogue robot and destroy this rogue robot and its no-safety coding, Barney takes Ron and runs off to the woods.
Barney is given all the marks of a misfit. His grandmother speaks with an accent and doesn’t understand urban ways as if she’s been petrified in time. Barney’s father is a thin, pot-bellied man in glasses. Barney has a nerdy hobby: rockhounding. He is White, but his family seems to have Eastern European roots (Bulgaria). The other classmate geeks are Noah (Cullen McCarthy) who looks of East Asian descent and likes video games, and Ava (Ava Morse), who loves science.
This will all eventually lead to a happy ending that is unfortunately too neatly tied up with a beautiful ribbon of friendship. Kids won’t learn that what’s on the internet lives on forever. They won’t learn that there is a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. I would have been one of the have-nots in middle school and high school as well as the person with the funny lunches.
What “Ron’s Gone Wrong” does right is demonstrate that weird food can be cool and kids need to interface with real people to become friends and there are different reasons for being friends–common interests, same age group, same neighborhood and similar problems and concerns. Like computer dating, the algorithm for personal chemistry has not yet been hacked and often neglects that inadvertently shared experiences and causes can bring people together. What the film does wrong is pretend that mistakes that go viral on the internet can be quickly and easily erased and the have-nots would boil down to one person in an average middle school.
“Ron’s Gone Wrong” made its world premiere at the 2021 BFI London Film Festival on 9 October 2921. The film was released on 22 October 2021 in the US (theatrical only).