The second family film this year to address the dark side of tech, Ron’s Gone Wrong unfortunately falls a little flat in execution.
Ron’s Gone Wrong has some lofty goals: it’s a bold attempt to talk about how social media addiction, consumerism, and technology at large has taken over kids’ lives in a way that’s not just unhealthy, but that’s actively leaving them lonelier. And if anything can be applauded about writer and director Sarah Smith’s film, it’s in the way it wants to tackle all of this head on. Only in this world, swap the iPhones and tablets for “B-bots”—cute little AIs proudly labeled “your best friend out of the box!” They follow you everywhere, learn everything about you, and use that info to help you make new friends via other kids’ B-bots. It’s the tech solution to friendship! …And a handy little metaphor for the way tech once designed to bring us together has mutated into something else entirely.
So of course, every kid in the class has one except outsider Barney, who’s probably the kid most in need of a friend, any friend. When he finally gets his hands on one, it’s immediately clear that his bot Ron is a little… different.
Defective though he may be, Barney decides to make up for Ron’s wonky algorithm by teaching him about friendship himself, ultimately learning what it means to be a better friend in the process.
The end result, though, is a wildly uneven one. Ron is Wall-E level adorable, but lacks the same amount of depth which makes it pretty hard to understand what kind of friendship he and Barney really have. The film doesn’t so much give Ron a personality as a collection of the film’s best bits of physical comedy. It endears us to him, but the emotional connection isn’t there.
In fact, all of the film’s main characters fall victim to similar traps. Ron’s Gone Wrong relies on the dialogue to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to characterization. The easiest way to understand them isn’t to watch what they do, but to listen to what they pronounce themselves to be. Barney’s odd love of geology is constantly touted but at no point does he actually show any interest in it. We learn in the 11th hour that a classmate was once his best friend, but there’s nothing in the script aside from this announcement to tell us this, it’s completely absent from their interactions, and we never find out why the two drifted apart — an odd choice for a film entirely about the importance of friendship.
It’s this lack of groundwork that undercuts all of the film’s most emotional scenes. When Barney has to confront the idea of losing Ron, it devastates him on screen but leaves the audience cold in their seats.
The comedy at least plays well for the most part, with some jokes landing better than others. When Ron decides to collect some new friends for Barney on his own, he assembles a crew so delightfully odd it might be the standout joke of the whole feature. But these moments come far too inconsistently.
Many of the jokes at least take dead aim at the tech industry in a way that’s surprisingly unflinching. It villainizes the way corporations try to commodify kids’ very personalities and lambasts the overreliance on algorithms to tell us what, and even who, we should like. These messages are far from subtle and I think we can expect to see more kids’ media being critical of these institutions.
That said, Smith’s delivery of the message can often come across as hand-wringing and overly preachy. It too often presumes that kids have no idea what the negative effects of so much tech even are on them, and I think this underestimates them. It also fails to offer any kind of real solution to the problems it’s trying to address, even in a happily-ever-after, ideal-world kind of way. And without any real resolution to the heavy themes that permeate every scene, the ending rings fairly hollow.
Ron’s Gone Wrong ends up prioritizing the parents’ worries over kids’ actual feelings and experiences. It doesn’t ignore them, but it never actually feels like it’s speaking to them. In a media landscape where kids’ entertainment is getting smarter and savvier by the second, ignoring your true audience in favor of speaking to mom and dad is a mistake a little too big to ignore.
Ron’s Gone Wrong opens in theaters October 22nd.