You need to watch the most underrated sci-fi movie of 2021 on HBO Max ASAP
“Hi, I am insane.”
In one of 2021’s best animated movies, an imaginative kid takes on a giant tech corporation whose products may bring about a dangerous robot uprising. No, it’s not The Mitchells vs. the Machines. The young main character also learns to appreciate the value of their unique family background and find their own place in the world. No, it’s not Encanto. It’s a funny, crowd-pleasing family movie that came and went with almost no fanfare, and it’s ready for rediscovery through streaming,
The movie is Ron’s Gone Wrong, the first feature from Locksmith Animation, indifferently distributed to theaters by Disney subsidiary 20th Century Studios in October 2021. Co-written and co-directed by Locksmith co-founder Sarah Smith, who also co-wrote and directed the underrated 2011 animated holiday movie Arthur Christmas, Ron’s Gone Wrong is a delightfully wonky sci-fi comedy about delightfully wonky robot Ron (voiced by Zach Galifianakis). In the tradition of movie robots from Short Circuit’s Johnny 5 to Big Hero 6’s Baymax, Ron defies and transcends his programming via a series of mishaps and misunderstandings as he bonds with his human companion Barney Pudowski (Jack Dylan Grazer).
Ron is a Bubble Bot, or B-Bot, one of more than 100 million produced by tech conglomerate Bubble, which is led by idealistic, hoodie-clad CEO Marc Wydell (Justice Smith). These pill-shaped robots are marketed as companions for kids, combining various practical functions (messaging, video, social media) with Bubble’s proprietary “algorithm for friendship.” They quickly become essential accessories for discerning middle-schoolers, and Barney feels left out as the only student at his school without a B-Bot.
In the tradition of horror movie protagonists buying cursed toys for their children, Barney’s harried single dad Graham (Ed Helms) makes a desperate purchase of a damaged B-Bot from the back of a supply van so that he can give his son the perfect birthday present. The robot’s damage prevents it from connecting to the all-encompassing Bubble network, and limits its database to just the entries that begin with A, which means that Barney spends half the movie being addressed as Absalom. But it also gives Ron, who takes his name from the first letters in his UPC code, the kind of off-kilter personality that an outcast like Barney needs in a friend, someone who will help him nurture his own individuality and understand the value of true friendship.
It’s a bit corny, sure, but Ron’s Gone Wrong is never sappy or manipulative, and its freewheeling plot is chaotic enough that the main characters’ emotional journeys never feel predictable or formulaic. The first half of the movie focuses on comedy, as the malfunctioning Ron makes misguided attempts to behave like other B-Bots, slick devices that play video games, take selfies, and create social media posts. Galifianakis is perfectly cast as a character slightly out of step with reality, and he’s hilarious as Ron learns dances from Barney’s eccentric Bulgarian grandmother Donka (Olivia Colman), makes “friend requests” by affixing sticky notes to people, and introduces himself to strangers by saying, “Hi, I am insane.”
The second half of the movie raises the stakes, as Ron’s lack of safety controls allows him to wreak havoc, especially when he interacts with other B-Bots. “It’s basically kind of the apocalypse, but fun,” says Barney’s influencer-wannabe classmate Savannah (Kylie Cantrall) when Ron causes chaos among the B-Bots at Barney’s school. Unlike the robots of The Mitchells vs. the Machines, though, Ron doesn’t want to take over the world or destroy humanity, and neither do the other B-Bots.
Ron just genuinely wants to be Barney’s friend, and not in the superficial way that B-Bots are designed for. Even Bubble’s Marc Wydell, whose attire and name recall Mark Zuckerberg, is a nice guy who values friendship. It’s Marc’s profit-obsessed business partner Andrew (Rob Delaney) who views kids as commodities and says things like “We’ve finally done it! We’ve ended sleep!”
That makes it sound like Ron’s Gone Wrong is an anti-technology movie, but its message is nuanced. The problem isn’t that kids are spending too much time with technology, but that the technology isn’t being used in the right way. Defeating the bad guy means improving the B-Bot experience for all users, making sure that technology brings people together rather than tears them apart. It’s the opposite of the techno-dystopia common to so many sci-fi movies, even animated ones aimed at kids.
Smith and her collaborators are never heavy-handed, and Ron’s Gone Wrong is satisfying as pure entertainment, from the way Galifianakis delivers Ron’s offbeat observations to the expressions the robot makes via simple arrangements of pixels. Colman embraces her comedy roots as the similarly offbeat Donka, who’s instantly on Ron’s wavelength. Barney is a precocious but never annoying kid, whose anxiety and melancholy are relatable but not overpowering.
“Avoids problems 89 percent of the time,” Ron concludes about Barney, in an assessment that may hit home for many viewers, no matter their age. It’s just the kind of gentle reminder that Barney needs to take responsibility for his own feelings and actions. Sometimes those bits of inspiration come from the unlikeliest places — like a neglected animated movie.