Review: ‘Ron’s Gone Wrong,’ starring the voices of Jack Dylan Grazer, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Olivia Colman, Ron Delaney, Justice Smith and Kylie Cantrall

October 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ron (voiced by Zack Galifianakis) and Barney (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) in “Ron’s Gone Wrong” (Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“Ron’s Gone Wrong”

Directed by Sarah Smith and Jean-Philippe Vine

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the ainmated film ‘”Ron’s Gone Wrong” features a predominantly white cast of characters cast (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A lonely adolescent boy gets a companion robot as a gift, and he finds out that the robot has flaws that can get him into trouble.

Culture Audience: “Ron’s Gone Wrong” is a family-friendly film that will appeal primarily to people who like stories about how contemporary and futuristic technology could affect humanity.

Ava (voiced by Ava Morse), Noah (voiced by Cullen McCarthy), Jayden (voiced by Thomas Burbusca), Rich (voiced by Ricardo Hurtado), Alex (voiced by Marcus Scribner) and Savannah (voiced by Kylie Cantrall) in “Ron’s Gone Wrong” (Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

Can an imperfect computer-operated robot be the perfect best friend for a lonely boy? That’s the question behind the animated comedy adventure film “Ron’s Gone Wrong,” which has some quirks and flaws (just like the robot in question) but is ultimately charming in how it presents issues about how much technology can or should replace a human being. “Ron’s Gone Wrong” gets a little off-track in the last third of the film by trying to cram in too many twists and turns to the story, but it eventually gets back on track to have a satisfying conclusion.

Directed by Sarah Smith and Jean-Philippe Vine (with co-direction by Octavio E. Rodriguez), “Ron’s Gone Wrong” treads on familiar territory in children’s oriented films where the protagonaist is a lonesome child who finds and befriends a “special companion.” The “special companion” is unusual enough that, at some point, the child has to keep the companion a secret from adults who might want to take the companion away from the child. The “special companion” could be a talking animal (“Ratatouille”), a space alien (“Lilo & Stitch”) or a computer-operated robot (“Ron’s Gone Wrong”).

“Ron’s Gone Wrong” might gets some comparisons to the Oscar-winning 2014 animated film “Big Hero 6.” However, that there aren’t many things that these two movies have in common except that they’re both animated films about an adolescent boy who has a computer-operated robot as a best friend. In “Big Hero 6,” the boy and the robot are crime-fighting superheroes. In “Ron’s Gone Wrong” the protagonist and his companion robot are supposed to be awkward misfits who have more misadventures than adventures.

The central human character in “Ron’s Gone Wrong” is an adolescent boy named Barney Pudowski (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer), who is a seventh grader at Nonsuch Middle School, which is an unnamed U.S. city. Barney doesn’t have any close friends or siblings. And he’s the only student who doesn’t have the world’s hottest technology device: a Bubble Bot, also known as a B-Bot.

A B-Bot is a talking robot that is shaped like a giant pill capsule and is about the size of a toddler child. Every single B-Bot has a computer algorithm that can detect from a person’s handprints what that person’s preferences and memories are, in order to make the B-Bot the perfect, custom-made friend to the person who owns the B-Bot. The B-Bots come in a box that has this label: “Best Friend Out of the Box.”

B-Bots have become such a common technology device, kids at school have a special location where the B-Bots are stored while the school’s classes are in session. The B-Bots are allowed to interact with the kids at school outside of the classroom, such as in hallways, in cafeterias, or during recess periods. Just like smartphones, B-Bots have become significant in the lifestyles of people who can afford to have this technology. Anyone who doesn’t have a B-Bot at Nonsuch Middle School is considered a social outsider and “behind the times.”

B-Bots were invented by a computer tech genius named Marc Widdell (voiced by Justice Smith), who is the CEO of the Bubble company that makes B-Bots. The beginning of “Ron’s Gone Wrong” shows Marc introducing B-Bots at a big event that’s similar to Apple Inc.’s product-reveal events. Marc’s goal to have the world populated with B-Bots is not motivated by greed but rather by an altruistic intention to rid the world of loneliness. B-Bots are programmed to not hurt people and other beings.

Marc has a second-in-command executive named Andrew (voiced by Rob Delaney), who’s in charge of the company’s sales and marketing. Andrew is selfish, dishonest and ruthlessly ambitious. He doesn’t really care if B-Bots are helping people or not. He just wants to sell as many B-Bots as possible, because he eventually wants to take over the company and replace Marc as CEO.

Meanwhile, at school. Barney is teased and bullied by other students because most of his toys are rocks. A compassionate teacher named Miss Thomas (voiced by Megan Maczko) hugs him in the schoolyard (much to Barney’s embarrassment) and tells some of the students to talk to Barney. It just makes things worse, because the students just taunt him some more about not having a B-Bot. They call Barney names like “rock boy.” Barney also feels different from most other students because he has asthma.

The chief bully is a brat named Rich (voiced by Ricardo Hurtado), who is merciless in trying to insult and humiliate Barney. Rich has two sidekicks named Alex (voiced by Marcus Scribner) and Jayden (voiced by Thomas Barbusca), who go along with whatever Rich does. Other students who end up interacting with Barney are Savannah (voiced by Kylie Cantrall), a self-centered gossip who’s obsessed with being a social media star; Noah (voiced by Cullen McCarthy), a nice guy who is kind to Barney; and Ava (voiced by Ava Morse), a brainy and empathetic acquaintance who is Barney’s secret crush.

Barney lives with his widower father Graham Pudowski (voiced by Ed Helms) and Graham’s Russian immigrant mother Donka Pudowski (voiced by Olivia Colman), who is a widow. Barney’s mother/Graham’s wife died when Barney was 2 years old. Graham owns a novelty toy and trinket company called Pudowski Novelty Exports, which is an online wholesaler. Graham works from home and does all the sales himself, which means that he works very long hours. He’s often seen on the phone trying to close deals with potential and existing clients.

Donka is old-fashioned and scatter-brained, but she adores her family. She likes to think that she’s still living on a farm in Russia instead of a city in the United States. How old-fashioned is Donda? She will bring live animals, like a chicken or a goat, with her wherever she goes.

It’s somewhat of a corny and outdated depiction of immigrants who come to America, by stereotyping immigrants as people stuck in the backwards ways of the “old country” that’s not as technologically advanced as the United States. And in other stereotype of immigrants who don’t have English as their first language, Donda speaks in broken English.

Barney likes to play with toy trains, but even that’s considered out-of-touch by his peers. He longs to have his own B-Bot. However, Barney’s loving but strict father doesn’t want Barney to have a B-Bot because he’s concerned that Barney will be like other kids who spend too much time being addicted to technology and devices, instead of having in-person human interactions and doing things like playing outdoors. Ironically, Graham has become such a workaholic who’s glued to his phone and his computer, he’s been neglecting Barney.

As for Barney’s grandmother Donda, she doesn’t trust new technology overall. Donda doesn’t mince words when she tells Barney what she thinks about B-Bots: “B-Bot is just a fad. And it costs a fortune!”

Early on in the movie, Barney turns 13 years old. His father and grandmother have a birthday party for Barney. The people who were invited to the party were some Barney’s fellow students, but none of the invited people goes to the party. Barney is also disappointed when he opens the birthday gift that he got from his father: It’s another rock toy.

Graham, who can see how miserable Barney is, feels guilty about not getting Barney the gift that Barney wanted. And so, Graham and Donda go to the nearest store that sells B-Bots to get a B-Bot as a belated birthday gift for Barney. But there’s a big problem: All B-Bots are sold-out and won’t be available for the next three months.

Just by coincidence, as Graham and Donda are leaving the store, they see some delivery truck workers in the back of the store. Graham overhears one of the workers talking about a defective B-Bot that Graham can see in the back of a truck. And the next thing you know, Barney gets a belated birthday girft. He opens up the box, and it’s the defective B-Bot, but Barney doesn’t know yet that the B-Bot is faulty. Graham has presented it as a new B-Bot.

It doesn’t take long for Barney to find out that the B-Bot has a lot of glitches. In one of many mistakes, the B-Bot (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) misidentifies Barney’s name and has programmed itself to think that Barney’s name is Absalom. One day, when Barney comes home, he finds out that the B-Bot has made his room a mess and even set a few things on fire. It’s the opposite of the helpful housecleaning duties that a B-Bot is supposed to be capable of doing.

Barney takes an instant dislike to this B-Bot and doesn’t want anything to do with it. However, the B-Bot is programmed to try to be the best friend possible to its owner. The B-Bot tags along with an annoyed Barney, who hasn’t bothered to give the B-Bot a name.

One day, school bully Rich corners Barney for some more insults and degradation at an outdoor skate park, where Rich has been showing off his skateboarding skills during a livestream for his social media. Alex and Jayden are there too. Rich thinks that harassing Barney during the livestream is hilarious.

Rich also makes fun of Barney for having a defective B-Bot. Rich hits the B-Bot, but he’s in for a shock when the B-Bot hits back. A brawl then ensues between Rich and the B-Bot. Rich’s cronies run away in fear, while Rich shouts, “Cut the livestream!”

But the damage has been done. People who saw the livestream now know that a B-Bot is capable of attacking humans. Barney later finds out that his B-Bot doesn’t have “safety settings” to prevent it from hurting people. And that’s why, to avoid a potential PR disaster and lawsuits, the Bubble company orders that the B-Bot be found, confiscated and destroyed. The police also get involved in the search.

However, Barney is impressed with how this B-Bot defended him like a friend. Barney now doesn’t want to give up his B-Bot. He tells the B-Bot, “I can fix you and teach you to be my friend.” It’s at this point that the B-Bot says his name is Ronbitscasco, but Barney calls the robot Ron, for short.

There’s a great deal of the movie that’s about Barney trying to hide Ron from people who want to take Ron away from Barney. Varous hijinks happen—some more predictable than others. Meanwhile, Ron causes a lot of mishaps along the way, which makes Barney get into even more trouble. Barney than does the most obvious thing that a kid would do who wants to hide.

“Ron’s Gone Wrong” might get some criticism for how the problems in this story are resolved. However, it’s easy to perhaps misinterpet “Ron’s Gone Wrong” as a movie that advocates for replacing human interaction and human emotions with the idea that a computer-operated robot can take care of all of a person’s needs. Instead, the message of the movie, which can be a bit muddled, is that there are certain technologies that aren’t going away anytime soon. We can either be in misguided denial and think that people will stop using this technology, or we choose to figure out ways how that technology can beneift people in a positive way.

The movie makes a point that technology, just like anything else, can be abused and used for the wrong reasons. Andrew is the obvious villain who is the epitome of this misuse. Barney knows that Ron should not be his only friend, but Ron teaches Barney to have the self-confidence to make human friends. And the movie doesn’t put all the blame on technology-obsessed kids, because there’s a part of the story that deals with how adults can unintentionally be neglectful of their children for reasons that have nothing to do with technology.

“Ron’s Gone Wrong” is a children’s oriented movie that slips some borderline adult jokes into the story, so that adult viewers can get some laughs. In one scene, Donda says that she once “mended my own hernia with a bread knife and vodka.” In other scene, there’s a recurring poop joke that becomes a plot device for something that happens to one of the students at Barney’s school. The joke might be offensive to some viewers, so consider yourself warned.

At times, “Ron’s Gone Wrong” goes a little bit too over-the-top with what these B-Bots can do. Without giving away any spoiler information, it’s enough to say that parts of this movie look inspired by the “Transformers” cartoon series. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t go off too much on this tangent. “Ron’s Gone Wrong” has some eye-catching visuals, and the cast members perform their roles well. It’s not in the upper echelon of top-quality animated films, but “Ron’s Gone Wrong” serves its purpose of being escapist entertainment that people of many generations can enjoy.

20th Century Studios released “Ron’s Gone Wrong” in U.S. cinemas on October 22, 2021.

Review: ‘Luca’ (2021), starring the voices of Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan and Sandy Martin

June 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) and Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) in “Luca” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

“Luca” (2021)

Directed by Enrico Casarosa 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Riviera town in Italy, the animated film “Luca” features an all-white cast of characters portraying the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In a world where sea monsters can transform into humans when they’re on land, a teenage sea monster rebels against his parents’ rules by hanging out on land, and he makes plans to run away with another teenage sea monster who has become his best friend.

Culture Audience: “Luca” will appeal primarily to people interested in predictable but enjoyable animated films about family, friendship and self-identity.

Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) and Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) in “Luca” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

How do you know you’re watching a Pixar movie, besides the great visuals? The lead characters are usually male and struggling with identity/self-esteem issues, they go on an adventure with least one sidekick, and they find out the meaning of life with some tearjerking moments. The End.

Pixar Animation Studios’ “Luca” (directed by Enrico Casarosa) follows this same formula to mostly entertaining results in this story about sea monsters and humans. It’s not a groundbreaking animated film, but it’s a definite crowd-pleaser that can appeal to several different age groups. The underwater scenes in the movie are the most visually stunning, but it’s not too surprising, considering that Pixar is also the studio behind 2003’s far superior, Oscar-winning “Finding Nemo,” which was set primarily underwater. “Luca” spends most of the story on land.

Pixar, which is owned by Disney, sets itself apart from Disney Animation Studios by putting more emphasis on original stories about characters who want to feel comfortable with themselves for the first time in their lives. Therefore, the adventures in Pixar tend to have more at stake on a personal level than defeating an evil villain, because low self-esteem is often the story’s biggest villain. The visuals in Pixar films also tend to be more intricate and dazzling than Disney Animation films.

However, it’s concerning that when the world’s population and movie audiences are at least 50% female, Pixar continues to have a majority of feature-length movies where the stories are dominated by male characters. Maybe that’s because almost all Pixar movies are written and directed by men. “Luca” is no exception. The “Luca” screenplay was written by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones.

Pixar films tend to be very male-centric for lead protagonists, whereas Disney Animation films have more of a gender balance in their lead protagonists. (Disney princesses. Need we say more?) Disney Animation also has a mix of films that are from original and adapted screenplays, since many classic children’s books and fairy tales have been made into Disney animated films.

“Luca” takes place in Italy in an unnamed town near the Riviera, which is populated by sea monsters that can transform into humans when they’re on land. Because human beings have a reputation for killing sea monsters, it’s become normal for sea monsters to fear and mistrust humans, just as many humans fear and mistrust sea monsters. Therefore, it’s not unusual for parent sea monsters to teach their children never to go on land.

That’s the case with Luca Paguro (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), an adolescent sea monster, who sounds like a boy who’s about 13 or 14. His overprotective parents—Daniela Paguro (voiced by Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo Paguro (voiced by Jim Gaffigan)—have instilled strict rules that Luca can never go on land (anything above the sea is called “the surface”) because it’s too dangerous. Daniela is more paranoid than Lorenzo is about Luca going on land because she’s certain that Luca will be hurt or killed if he does.

Luca’s parents keep him so sheltered that they don’t tell him that sea monsters have the ability to transform into humans when they’re on land and can go back to being sea monsters when underwater. If a sea monster is on land, and water touches a sea monster’s body, the sea monster’s body takes on sea monster physical characteristics, depending on how much water has made contact with the body. And you know that’s going to happen in this movie when Luca gets into some precarious situations.

Luca’s crusty-voiced grandmother, who doesn’t have a first name in the movie and is called Grandma (voiced by Sandy Martin), lives in the Paguro household. Grandma has been to the surface, where she says she hung out with humans to do things like play card games, so she isn’t afraid of the surface like Luca’s parents are. In one early scene in the movie, the family is having a meal together around a dining room table when Grandma starts to tell a happy memory of her time on the surface. However, Daniela gets upset and verbally shuts down Grandma by ordering her never to talk about her surface experiences to Luca.

Luca is a lonely sea monster who doesn’t have any sea monster friends underwater. He spends his days hanging out with fish. His favorite is a fish named Giuseppe. But since these fish can’t talk, Luca is starting to feel isolated. Luca secretly wishes that he could go to school with other kids, but his parents are apparently homeschooling him. His father breeds and handles show crabs for a living, and Luca is expected to do the same thing when he becomes an adult.

One day, Luca sees a young male sea monster in a diving outfit. At first, Luca is afraid because he thinks the individual in diving gear is a human. But the sea monster reveals himself to be a teenager who sounds like he’s about 15 or 16 years old. His name is Alberto Scorfano (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer), who ends up capturing Luca with a fishing hook and bringing Luca to the surface.

It’s how a terrified Luca finds out for the first time that he has the ability to become a human when he’s on land. Alberto lives in an abandoned castle tower, and he says that his single father is frequently away because of the father’s busy job demands. There’s no mention of Alberto’s mother in the story.

Alberto is a bit of a daredevil and mischief maker. In the movie’s opening scene, two fisherman—elderly Tommaso (voiced by Gino La Monica) and young Giacomo (voiced by Giacomo Giannotti)—are on a boat at night. Giacomo is concerned about fishing in this part of the water, because he’s heard stories about deadly sea monsters living in the area. Tommaso is dismissive of these stories. But then, a sea monster (which viewers later find out is Alberto) steals some of items from the boat, including a gramophone, and the two fishermen chase him away.

In his newfound human body, Luca feels scared but excited. Alberto teaches Luca how to walk on two feet and other ways to navigate himself as a human. The two boys end up becoming fast friends. Luca sneaks off to spend time with Alberto as much as possible while his parents are working or asleep. (Luca uses a makeshift decoy to fool his parents if they’re watching from far away.) However, Luca knows that what he’s doing is strictly forbidden by his parents. And it’s only a matter of time before they find out his secret.

One of the first things that Alberto tells Luca when they meet is that everything is better above the surface. Alberto also says that the Vespa scooter is “the greatest thing that humans ever made.” Alberto even has a poster that says that a Vespa scooter equals freedom. It’s Alberto’s dream to have a Vespa scooter so that he can travel around the world. Soon, this dream becomes a shared obsession for Alberto and Luca.

In order to get the money to buy a new Vespa and start this dream adventure lifestyle, Alberto wants to enter a scooter racing contest called the Portorosso Cup, which is held on the other side of the sea where the main part of the town is. At first, Luca is hesitant, but Alberto convinces him to be his racing partner in the Portorosso Cup. Alberto builds a makeshift scooter to enter the contest.

When Luca’s parents find out that he’s been sneaking away to go on land, they punish him by telling him that Luca will be temporarily sent to live with his stern Uncle Ugo (voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen), who doesn’t seem to like children very much. Luca’s reaction? He runs away from home. Luca is now more motivated to win the contest so that he and Alberto can run away and start their adventurous life together without any parental supervision.

During Luca and Alberto’s blossoming friendship, Alberto teaches Luca how to get rid of self-doubt, which Alberto calls Bruno. There are many references in the movie to Bruno, which is the type of self-doubt that causes naysayer voices in someone’s head that tell people they can’t do something or that they’re not good enough. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t have actual Bruno voices because that would be too tacky and distract from the story.

The reigning Portorosso Cup champ is an arrogant bully named Ercole Visconti (voiced by Saverio Raimondo), who has won this contest several times in a row. And he has no intention of ever losing. Ercole predictably has two male sidekick followers—a brunette named Guido (voiced by Lorenzo Crisci) and a blonde named Ciccio (voiced by Peter Sohn)—who don’t speak for most of the movie and passively follow Ercole’s orders.

During the time that Alberto and Luca spend time in the town among humans, Alberto and Luca befriend a human teenager, who’s close to Luca’s age. Her name is Giulia Marcovaldo (voiced by Emma Berman), who is friendly and adventurous. She comes to the town every summer to live with her divorced father Massimo Marcovaldo (voiced by Marco Barricelli), who generously gives the three teens the money that they need for the Portorosso Cup entry fee.

Of course, getting to the Portorosso Cup isn’t without its problems. Ercole wants to thwart these young upstarts and does what he can to ruin their chances of winning the contest. Luca’s parents find out that he’s run away, and they go to the town to try to find him. Luca sees them, and has to spend a great deal of the movie trying to hide from his parents.

Meanwhile, Alberto gets jealous when Luca and Giulia start to become close. Arguments predictably ensue. In the preparations for the Portorosso Cup, the tables somewhat turn as Luca becomes more confident and Alberto becomes more insecure. And the Portorosso Cup isn’t just about winning, but in this movie it becomes a way for Luca, Alberto and Giulia to learn about how they can handle obstacles and what they really want to get out of life.

One of the best things about “Luca” is that it doesn’t clutter the movie with too many characters. The story is also very easy to follow, although it’s not very original, since a lot of animated/family films have already done the “high-stakes contest” as a plot device to have the heroes face off against the villains. All of the actors give fine performances, although it’s too bad that comedian Baron Cohen essentially has just a cameo as Uncle Ugo, whose time on screen is so brief it seems like a waste of Baron Cohen’s talents.

The most irritating flaw of “Luca” is its unrelenting promotion of Vespa. It comes off as aggressive shilling/product placement. And it somewhat taints the movie’s story because Vespa is elevated as this product brand that is the equivalent of freedom and happiness. It’s a shallow and materialistic message, even though the movie has a larger message of self-acceptance that’s more important.

The mistrust and prejudice that some humans and sea monsters have for each other are obvious metaphors of real-life bigotry. Just like in real life, some individuals are narrow-minded and hateful, while others are not. However, the movie has mixed messages about “assimilation” where individuals in the minority feel like they have to be more like individuals in the majority in order to be accepted.

Some viewers might have different opinions about what kinds of message this movie might be sending where a sea monster wants to live as a human. Alberto says in the beginning of the movie that human life on land is superior to animal life in the sea. That’s a message that probably won’t endear “Luca” to animal rights activists.

However, people need to see the movie to find out how these issues of species superiority and inferiority are handled. Because sea monsters can turn into humans, the movie takes the interpretation that they’re almost like biracial people who feel pressure to identify as one race over another. It’s enough to say that the main characters in “Luca” find out that real freedom comes from not being afraid to be who you are and not letting others put you into a narrow box of what they think you should be.

Disney+ will premiere “Luca” on June 18, 2021. The movie will have an exclusive, limited-run engagement at Disney-owned El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles, beginning June 18, 2021.

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