Ron’s Gone Wrong review: Robot friends and reasons to be offline

Ron’s Gone Wrong isn’t the first Disney film to hire a white, rounded robot with circular black eyes to befriend a lonely kid. Big Hero 6 presented an identical human-android team-up to great acclaim in 2014. But while that film was designed with the themes of grief, hatred, forgiveness and, ultimately, the potency of non-violence at heart, Ron’s Gone Wrong is more worried about the issue of social connections, both online and off.

The film tells the story of Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer), an introverted pre-teen from a low-income household who is raised by single dad Graham (Ed Helms) and live-in grandmother Donka (Olivia Colman). Barney is the only child at his middle school who doesn’t own a B-Bot, a whole new robotic device installed with an “algorithm for friendship” that was made by young, hoodie-wearing tech CEO Marc (Justice Smith).

Designed to be considered a “best friend out of your box” for children all over the world, each B-bot is tailored to its user via data harvested from their online behaviour and social media profiles. However, when Barney is given a malfunctioning device for his birthday, the one that literally fell off the trunk of the truck, it requires on a mind of its and becomes Ron (Zach Galifianakis).

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Given the annals of robots with free will in sci-fi, the plot could have easily been down the technological uprising route seen in the Terminator franchise or The Mitchells vs the Machines,  but there is something rather refreshing about the characterisation of an AI that develops its own identity by pursuing love and friendship. It brings to mind a brief story from Malka Older’s … And Other Disasters collection about an AI who is rolling out human emotions as a result of the scientist or “mother” that raised it.

Similarly, Ron’s increasingly caring, playful and protective bond with Barney is heart-warming to watch, especially when their journey takes them into the great outdoors for a few misadventures. It really wouldn’t be a Disney animation without some slapstick set pieces, cultural caricatures or random animal sidekicks to greatly help push the plot forward, and a few of these bumps in the street are amusing to view. A scene in the institution playground where Ron’s unlocked coding spreads like a virus to other bots is a chaotic yet ominous sight to behold.

That’s where the film’s sinister undercurrent commences to spark, swiftly turning into a cautionary tale about letting children spend a lot of time on the devices to the main point where they become addicted to making the feeling online. There are a few not-so-subtle messages about evil areas of profit-driven big tech companies, surveillance society, data harvesting and the dangers of sharing an excessive amount of yourself on the web. In fact, you will find a surprising amount of thematic crossover with Netflix’s The Social Dilemma for a children’s film.

And yet, regardless of the rich voice performances, the characters – and the supporting kinds in particular – appear frustratingly underdeveloped. The plot structure and narrative beats are overly formulaic, too. The story creates the issues of economical disparity, technological inequality and the social aftereffect of technology on children, but never really broaches the topic.

Instead, the script favours the more simplistic idea of “make friends offline, not online”, although ending doesn’t proficiently complete that train of thought. And if Hollywood immediately stopped using the hackneyed plot device of “I’m asthmatic and I can’t breathe”, it wouldn’t be quickly enough. Still, Ron’s Gone Wrong isn’t with out a heart or a social conscience, and a viewing could inspire you to change off and meet up with your friends in real life instead.

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