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Ron’s Gone Wrong movie review: A second-hand guide on how to train your AI robot

Ron's Gone Wrong movie review: A second-hand guide on how to train your AI robot

Ron’s Gone Wrong | Director: Jean-Philippe Vine, Sarah Smith, Octavio E. Rodriguez

Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Jack Dylan Grazer, Ed Helms, Olivia Colman, Justice Smith, Rob Delaney, Kylie Cantrall, Ricardo Hurtado

Duration: 1 hour 46 minutes | Language: English | Rating: 2.5

In the not-too-distant future of Ron’s Gone Wrong, a robot is a child’s best friend. Smartphones have been replaced by bean-shaped buddies called B-bots, which are like Big Hero 6’s Baymax-meets-Apple’s design team. Using the power of machine learning, these B-bots provide users with personalised friendship experiences by gathering the data from their social media accounts. Then, on matching tastes and distastes, they help the kids make more friends. The B-bots’ skins can be personalised too, based on whatever new Marvel or Star Wars movie is running in theatres. Don’t ever count out Disney from getting in on opportunities for merchandising and cross-franchise pandering. Schools have embraced the B-bots too. They provide individual hubs to all the students to keep their best friends charging. With all the apprehension over managing gadget time and how too much tech dependency reduces kids’ attention spans, it feels like a huge logical leap. It’s the first of many to come.

Directed by Jean-Philippe Vine, Sarah Smith and Octavio E. Rodriguez, Ron’s Gone Wrong is the first feature from the British studio Locksmith Animation.Part of what doesn’t help them from making a great first impression is timing. We’ve already had a much zestier outing with a dysfunctional family, a malfunctioning AI, and the versatile voice of Olivia Colman earlier this year in The Mitchells vs. the Machines. No measure of perilous journeys and poop jokes that Ron’s Gone Wrong has to offer can quite match up to the yardstick set by the original boy-and-robot classic, The Iron Giant.

What also doesn’t help the film’s cause is the good-and-evil simplification in its Big Tech criticism. The film opens to an Apple Keynote-style presentation where tech giant Bubble Inc unveil the B-bot. An elaborate production of lights, projections and sound is greeted with thunderous applause from an agog audience. Making the presentation is whizz-kid Marc (Justice Smith), an idealist who wants to give everyone a personalised friend they can rely upon. For a whizz-kid though, he is somehow shockingly unaware that such personalisation almost always comes at the cost of data mining and privacy violations. Which he only learns when the true insidious purpose behind the B-bots is later explicitly revealed by the turtleneck-wearing COO Andrew (Rob Delaney). The good and evil of Big Tech try to outmanoeuvre each other. The good wins. The evil goes into hiding. The whole thing is conveniently resolved.

Our point-of-entry character is Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer), a misfit middle-schooler. An all-too-familiar backstory plays out. It doesn’t matter which animation studio makes the movie, they all got to kill one of mom or dad, if not both, for the purposes of character development. The death of Barney’s mom is not a catalyst though. It perhaps gets a couple of throwaway mentions. With no mom, single dad Graham (Ed Helms) does the best he can, with help from staunchly anti-communist Bulgarian grandma Donka (Colman). When every kid in school buys into the B-bot craze, Barney can’t as much as he wants to. Because his family can’t afford to. Obstacles come in the form of once-friends, now-bullies who make him feel lesser for not having one. There’s influencer Savannah (Kylie Cantrall) and prankster Rich (Ricardo Hurtado). If you were the only kid who didn’t have a PlayStation or a bunch of Beyblades or whatever was the fad of the year back in school, you would understand what Barney is going through. What may be a fad for adults though is a way to belong and navigate some tough school years for kids. Despite struggling to make ends meet, dad Graham buys the best B-bot his money can buy on Barney’s birthday. Only, this particular “best friend out of the box” (Zach Galifianakis) turns out to be buggy as hell. Barney names him Ron, short for his model number. Despite his defects (like his inability to connect to WiFi for some reason), an unlikely friendship blossoms the old-fashioned way: through offline adventures which culminate in an E.T.-esque ending.

The animation is nimble with richly rendered textures. The voice cast brings wit and heart as best they can. Grazer does most of the emotional heavy lifting, and he does it commendably. Galifianakis’ one-note deadpan is perhaps well-suited to voicing an AI. As one of the bugs don’t allow Ron to install his complete database, his vocabulary is a little heavy on words starting from “A,” which brings some absurdity to the humour. But the only actor who goes for broke is Colman, who brings a boisterous goodness to grandma Donka, even if it is a dialled-up Eastern European caricature.

No modern animation movie is complete without messaging. With Amazon, Facebook et al pulling the shit they do, no wonder Big Tech has become the go-to villain over Big Government nowadays. Besides Big Tech is mostly Evil, Ron’s Gone Wrong also considers the impact of social media, like how the cesspit of selfies, likes and followers can breed tiny narcissists, and how authentic self-expression makes way for projections more and more detached from the truth. But the key message drilled here is about friendship being a two-way street, and accepting each other’s faults. But it’s hard to accept Ron’s Gone Wrong the same way. For it so thoroughly lacks in distinctive ideas, style or that special something, it could have really been made by anyone. For a studio making its first film, it elicits little more than faint admiration.

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