Only viewers of a certain age will be familiar with the erratic sound of a dial-up modem firing into gear. It’s one of a whole host of pitch-perfect gags that litter new animation Ron’s Gone Wrong, a tender, frequently hilarious tale of unexpected friendships, growing self-assurance and analogue triumph in the digital age.
A directorial team of Sarah Smith, Jean-Phillipe Vine and Octavio E. Rodriguez bring a wealth of collective nous in writing, art and animation department experience to the age-old story of a young lad and his search for a best friend. Barney Pudowski (voiced by Jack Dylan Glazer) is bullied at school, is the only kid not to spend all day, every day with the new must-have B-bot gadget, and on his birthday receives a rock hammer set from his dad (Ed Helms) instead.
Completing the family dynamic is Olivia Coleman, terrific as Donka, Barney’s larger-than-life, butcher’s knife-wielding Bulgarian grandmother. When no pals turn up for her grandson’s birthday party (in fact he doesn’t even give out the invites for fear of rejection), she knows something must be done. In steps Ron (Zach Galifinakis). Or rather, in crashes Ron, a little battered and bruised after quite literally falling off the back of a van. Not quite the all-singing, dancing, fighting, selfie-taking, trending social media machine that his classmates may show off at every recess. But from a blank slate, and slightly wonky factory settings – being dropped on his head means Ron initially struggles to get past anything beginning with ‘A’ – comes learning, and a path towards a common objective; an exchange of ideas and understanding.
But what is a friend? And how does true friendship work? The idealistic brainchild of a young man named Marc (with a c, not a k – and voiced by Justice Smith), a tech genius who wears a hoodie and shorts to work (sound vaguely familiar?), the B-Bots were created as a way for children to connect with others, share stories and interests. However, in came the money men and shareholders. Andrew Morris (Rob Delaney) is the devil on one shoulder here, seeing only dollar signs and a stock index, ignoring the harvesting of data and detriment to young people’s mental health caused by their electronic devices. And if Ron’s Gone Wrong does fall short anywhere, it’s in a slightly mixed – or perhaps ambiguous – message towards the minimal pros and considerable cons of social media platforms for children, especially if they’re still in middle school.
“It’s Mad Max meets Sesame Street!” exclaims Morris when a serious malfunction causes bedlam in the playground. Director Smith shared writing duties with Peter Baynham, whose credits include working with Sacha Baron Cohen and Steve Coogan, and the comedy of the script – and Galifinakis doing what he does best – really does carry the film. Elsewhere, it is genuinely poignant and tugs just enough on the heartstrings without ever being maudlin. It’s familiar ground, but Ron’s Gone Wrong distils the best of the likes of Wall-E, The Mitchells vs The Machines and multiple Pixars; it has something to keep all the family amused and entertained throughout.
Visit the BFI London Film Festival page to delve deeper into the wealth of films on show this year.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63