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Ron’s Gone Wrong is an Iron Giant story with a tech upgrade

Trade in Cold War paranoia for all-powerful tech moguls

ron and barney sitting in a field Image: Locksmith Animation

Given the prominent presence of its cute, round, white robot companion, the new animated film Ron’s Gone Wrong may look like a fresh take on Disney’s Big Hero 6, where young inventor Hiro Hamada processes his grief with help from helpful healthcare companion Baymax, and together, they save the world. But while the two films’ robots look physically similar, Ron’s Gone Wrong actually shares more storytelling DNA with 1999’s The Iron Giant. Both focus on young boys making unlikely friends with strange robots, while greater forces seek to eradicate the anomalies, based on fear of the unknown.

From directors Sarah Smith (Arthur Christmas), Jean-Philippe Vine, and Octavio E. Rodriguez, Ron’s Gone Wrong, the debut animated film from British studio Locksmith Animation, gives the timeless boy-meets-robot template a modern edge. While the movie drags in the latter leg, and doesn’t pack as much nuance into its themes of technology and social media as it could, the crux of the story — the friendship between awkward Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer) and malfunctioning robot Ron (Zach Galifianakis) — is heartfelt and humorous.

[Ed. note: This review contains some minor setup spoilers for Ron’s Gone Wrong.]

ron standing in front of a bunch of flyers that say “Please Be Barney’s Friend!” Image: Locksmith Animation

Ron’s Gone Wrong follows middle-school student Barney, who has a hard time making friends. Everyone he knows has a B-Bot, a robot companion designed to algorithmically optimize friendships. That makes it virtually impossible for kids without robots at their side to make friends, since B-Bots are expected to engineer those interactions. Barney is the only kid at his school without one of the robots, at least until his down-on-his-luck father surprises him with one for his birthday. Unfortunately, because Barney’s dad bought the bot off a delivery guy in the back of a tech store, the B-Bot is defective and lacks the quintessential B-Bot friendship algorithm, as well as many of the expected safety features. As Barney and Ron build their friendship, Ron’s chaotic behavior catches the attention of the leaders of omnipresent tech company Bubble, particularly COO Andrew Morris (Rob Delaney), who is not exactly happy with a defunct bot ruining the company’s image and alienating its shareholders.

From the moment Ron powers up, he’s hilarious. He repeatedly fails to connect to the internet, and is only able to download information under the letter A, so he defaults to calling Barney “Absalom.” After a day at school, Barney returns to find out that Ron has explored every inch of his room — and burned his underwear, because Barney instructed Ron to learn everything about him so they could be best friends, and of course that includes learning the heat resistance of Barney’s underwear. Smith and co-writer Peter Baynham (Borat) craft jokes that range from pretty damn funny slapstick to specific goofs about technology, and it’s incredibly amusing.

Ron’s Gone Wrong is about trying to make a meaningful connection in the digital age, but unlike this year’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines, the film doesn’t really present a nuanced take on technology, beyond making it clear that relying on it can hamper real-life connections. However, the friendship between Barney and Ron blossoms beautifully, especially with Ron trying to understand the human concept of friendship, and creating his own algorithm based on Barney’s instructions. Barney also has a thing or two to learn about what being a friend means, emphasizing the theme of reciprocative relationships. Friendship isn’t as simple as an equation, and the movie does a great job of showing how much work goes into any connection. Eventually, Barney and Ron’s connection inspires some of Barney’s classmates to step outside their algorithmically generated comfort zones.

ron and barney riding through the woods Image: Locksmith Animation

In the same way that The Iron Giant interrogates America’s Cold War paranoia from the 1950s, Ron’s Gone Wrong touches on the 2020s’ overarching influence of tech moguls, as Andrew frantically tries to apprehend the defective robot. To him, nothing is more important than his shareholders, and he’s willing to sacrifice user privacy and even Barney’s life to keep his investors happy. While Ron being pursued is an important component of the movie — especially when it comes to who helps him and how — it also does add a heist sequence toward the end of the movie that feels prolonged. But Barney and Ron risking it all to protect each other highlights how far their friendship has come, and they feel like a modern spin on Hogarth and the Iron Giant, with an antsy billionaire tech mogul in place of the United States military freaking out about possible foreign weapons.

Ron’s Gone Wrong is full of laughs and a sweet message about friendship being a two-way street. Threaded through that theme is the question of what makes technology dangerous. While that can occasionally feel a bit one-sided, it nevertheless poses a compelling villain who carries out some damning, close-to-home actions — like spying on B-Bot users via the bots’ cameras — in his pursuit of Ron. Ron’s Gone Wrong could be a movie about the perils of social media, but it works better as a movie about recognizing that friendship requires work, no matter whether the connection blossoms through a high-tech device, or the old-fashioned way, in person.

Ron’s Gone Wrong is out in theaters on Oct. 22.