Why 'Ron's Gone Wrong' gets so much right

The new animated film is a parable for the social media age

The B-Bot is every socially awkward teenager’s perfect pal. The walking, talking, digitally connected buddy is always there for you, it knows everything about you, and it uses that knowledge to help you make friends and be the most successful version of yourself possible. Unless your B-Bot is Ron, that is.

The namesake B-Bot in the film Ron's Gone Wrong, in UAE cinemas from Thursday, is missing the algorithm that lets him make friends with his new owner, in this case nerdy Barney, played by Jack Dylan Grazer. And so the pair embark on an epic journey during which they learn all about the true meaning of friendship, taking a satirical swipe at the all-encompassing power of social media along the way.

For Grazer, the coming-of-age tale in the film mirrors his own story, now that the film is finally complete, almost five years after he joined the cast.

“I started back in 2017, I was 13 and I'm 18 now, so it's been a while,” Grazer tells The National. “It's been a whirlwind of a process and there's so much evolution that has happened, especially with Barney and the story as a whole. I remember the script, and there were so many different people, it was a whole other ballgame when I started. But I'm so glad that I stuck around and here we are now.”

The film is the first production from new UK animation house Locksmith, part of 20th Century Studios, which is a subsidiary of Disney, and successfully does what most of the best Disney animations do so well – telling a distinctly adult story in the guise of a children's film, and being a tale that parents will relate to just as much as the children the film is technically aimed at.

Few parents can be entirely free of concern about the growing role social media plays in their children’s lives, and it’s an issue that was strikingly close to home for co-star Kylie Cantrall, who plays Barney’s school crush, Savannah.

“Social media is a huge part of this film. She's taking these cute selfies and she's doing these make-up tutorials, but underneath it all, she's just a young girl trying to figure herself out,” Cantrall explains. “I hope that young girls can relate to her and understand the pressures that she goes through and kind of resonate with that part of her. There’s just so many pressures that come with social media, and especially in this cancel culture, too. It definitely is a scary thing, but as long as you're just not letting it take over your life and having that balance of knowing when to put the phone down and having those real in-person connections. It's so important to know your limits and find the delicate balance.”

Grazer agrees. “There are so many pressures on social media, and the funny thing about it is that it’s advertised as the greatest way of making friends ever, but it's the most toxic playground where you'll get fed the most judgment you'll ever see in your life. It's a toxic place to grow up, I think. So, the greatest thing I think is you should know who you are and stay grounded.”

For its writer and co-director, Sarah Smith, the film was very much informed by her daughter’s relationship with her connected devices, although she says what most inspired her was the adult Spike Jonze Oscar-winning film Her.

“It sounds ridiculous for an animated movie, but I thought, ‘I've got to make a movie like that for my three-year-old who is sitting there immersed in her iPad, believing every single thing that she's reading or hearing on it, including which is the best fabric softener,’” she says. “The two things going on in my household is my kid going through, as all children do, the issues of friendship, and at the same time us as parents going, ‘How do we help them in this world in which friendship is mediated by technology?’ That was my emotional, worthy reason for wanting to make the film. And then when I pitched the idea to Pete [Baynham, executive producer and co-writer], he said, well, how about if the device is basically an idiot? So Pete brought the comedy idiot in.”

Reliably on hand to play the comedy idiot is The Hangover star Zach Galifianakis, and the comic admits that he found it a challenge to convincingly voice a malfunctioning robot. “Sometimes I would be too emotional, I think, and then I would get feedback from the booth like, ‘That's too ... we're hearing a little crack of emotion there’,” he says. “It was a little tricky because you don't want to do a robot. Obviously, they didn't want that, they wanted more of my voice. But then how do you walk that line of not too much emotion, but likeable or loveable?”

Judging by the groundswell of largely positive reviews the movie has attracted since its premiere at the BFI London Film Festival last week, Galifianakis seems to have negotiated walking the line successfully. You can judge for yourself this weekend.

'Ron's Gone Wrong' is in UAE cinemas from Thursday

Updated: October 20th 2021, 4:53 AM