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: ‘All the Bright Places,’ starring Elle Fanning and Justice Smith

July 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Elle Fanning and Justice Smith in “All the Bright Places” (Photo by Michele K. Short/Netflix)

“All the Bright Places”

Directed by Brett Haley

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Indiana city, the dramatic film “All the Bright Places” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two troubled teenagers—one who’s grieving over the accidental death of her older sister, and the other who’s dealing with mental health issues—try to avoid their emotional problems by finding comfort with each other. 

Culture Audience: “All the Bright Places” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching teen dramas that tackle heavy issues.

Elle Fanning and Justice Smith in “All the Bright Places” (Photo by Walter Thomson/Netflix)

If you’re not in the mood to watch a movie about people suffering from anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, then you might want to skip “All the Bright Places.” The movie might seem like it’s about a cutesy teen romance, but it’s not. It’s about very real and very dark issues of mental health and coping with grief. There are moments of levity, but the film’s main characters always have an underlying internal threat to being truly happy.

Directed by Brett Haley, “All the Bright Places” is based on Jennifer Niven’s 2015 “All the Bright Places” novel, which was inspired by real events that she experienced as a teenager. Niven and Liz Hannah co-wrote the “All the Bright Places” screenplay, which makes some changes from the novel but is compassionately enlivened by memorable performances by Elle Fanning and Justice Smith. Although “All the Bright Places” won’t be an easy film to watch for people who are triggered by the same issues that the movie’s teen characters are coping with, the movie’s intention is to help bring awareness to these issues so that people can get and give help in real life.

One of the biggest changes from the book is the movie’s opening scene. In the book, teenagers Violet Markey and Theodore Finch meet when they both end up on the ledge of their high school’s bell tower, as they both contemplate suicide. In the movie, Violet (played by Fanning) and Theodore (played Smith), who prefers to be called Finch, meet when Finch sees Violet standing on the wall of a bridge, as if she’s thinking about jumping at any moment.

Violet and Finch are both in their last year of the same high school in an unnamed city in Indiana. They know about each other, since they’re in the same graduating class and have classes together, but this is the first time they’ve actually met. Finch jumps on the bridge wall to join Violet and reaches out his hand to help bring her off of the wall. Violet seems a little embarrassed and downplays her apparent contemplation of suicide. Finch seems to understand, and they make some small talk before going their separate ways.

On the surface, Violet and Finch couldn’t be more different. Violet is a classic “good girl” who does well in school, is obedient and well-liked by her peers. Finch is a classic “bad boy” who’s disruptive at school, is rebellious and a social outcast. Slowly but surely, it’s revealed how Violet and Finch have more in common that it first appears. It’s why they eventually become close and fall in love.

Violet is overwhelmed with grief over the death of her beloved older sister Eleanor, who was killed in a car accident where Eleanor was hit by a drunk driver. Violet was in the car with Eleanor and feels survivor’s guilt. And the reason why Violet was thinking about jumping off of the bridge that day was because that day would have been Eleanor’s 19th birthday, and that bridge was the site of the car accident.

Violet’s depression has caused her to become withdrawn to the point where she’s lost interest in a lot of social activities that she used to do, and she spends most of her free time by herself. Violet’s parents Sheryl (played by Kelli O’Hara) and James (played by Luke Wilson) gently suggest to Violet that she get back into more social activities, but she ignores their suggestions. Her parents are going through their own grieving process, so they don’t pressue Violet into doing anything that she doesn’t want to do.

In an early scene in the movie, Violet’s close friend Amanda (played by Virginia Gardner) asks Violet if she wants to hang out with her, but Violet says no. There’s an arrogant pretty boy at school named Roamer (played by Felix Mallard), who has a romantic interest in Violet, but she brushes off his attempts to impress her. When she finally decides to go to a party, she mopes and feels very insulted when Roamer tries to tell her, without saying the words, that she needs to get over Eleanor’s death and go back to the way she used to be.

There are hints that because Violet isn’t as sociable as she used to be, her popularity in school has declined. For example, she eats lunch in the school cafeteria by herself. When she walks into a classroom and accidentally drops her books, most of the other students laugh. Violet’s body language and facial expression show that she feels humilated and doesn’t want to call attention to herself. As a show of solidarity, Finch overturns his desk as a distraction so that people can laugh at him. It’s later revealed in the movie that many of the school’s students call Finch a “freak” behind his back.

Why does he have this reputation? It’s because in the previous year, Finch had a violent outburst where he physically attacked a teacher. Due to this incident and a few other unnamed disruptions that Finch has caused, Finch is now on probation and is in danger of not graduating. When he meets with a concerned teacher named Embry (played by Keegan-Michael Key), Finch is sarcastic and dismissive when Embry tries to talk to Finch about Finch’s problems.

Although Finch is treated like a pariah by most of the school’s students, two fellow students are his close friends and have stuck by him through good times and bad times. Charlie (played by Lamar Johnson) has been Finch’s friend longer than anyone else. Charlie, who is easygoing and very loyal, knows that Finch can be unpredictable and can have extreme mood swings. Finch’s other close friend at school is Brenda (played by Sofia Hasmik), who’s smart with an acerbic wit. Finch, Charlie and Brenda have lunch together at school and spend some time together outside of school.

Finch’s home life is very fractured. His backstory is revealed in bits and pieces. Finch’s father, who left the family when Finch was very young, was mentally and physically abusive. Finch’s mother, who isn’t seen in the movie until toward the end, has a job that requires her to travel a lot. Finch is essentially being raised by his understanding older sister Kate (played by Alexandra Shipp), who works as a bartender.

Based on conversations that Finch has with people, he has an undiagnosed mental illness that sounds like bipolar disorder. It’s hinted that Finch’s father, who’s never seen in the movie, might have had the same mental illness, because Finch expresses a fear that he will turn out like his father. Finch’s teacher Embry encourages Finch to join a support group for people coping with various mental and emotional issues. The movie shows if Finch ends up taking this advice.

The walls and ceiling of Finch’s bedroom are covered with color-coordinated Post-It notes of random sayings and thoughts that he writes to himself. Some of the words on the Post-It notes are “Breathe Deeply” and “Because She Smiled at Me.” During the course of the movie, Finch mentions that he often has trouble keeping up with his racing thoughts. He also has a habit of randomly cutting off contact from people and sometimes disappearing for unpredictable periods of time.

Meanwhile, Finch seems infatuated with Violet, ever since their first conversation. He tries to talk to her at school, but she’s withdrawn and aloof, as she has been with almost everyone around her. On social media, he tags her with a video of himself playing acoustic guitar and singing a song that he wrote about her. She’s creeped out and asks him to remove the video immediately, and he grants her request.

But one day, Violet and Finch’s sociology teacher Hudson (played by Chris Grace) gives the class an assignment called the Wandering Project. The assignment, which must be done in duos, requires the students to write about two or more wonders in Indiana that they have seen in person while traveling. Finch immediately knows that he wants Violet to be his partner, but she declines his request because she doesn’t feel ready to do this type of social assignment.

Violet’s mother doesn’t think it’s a good idea to back out of the assignment, but she’s willing to write a note so that Violet can avoid doing the Wandering Project. However, Hudson the teacher won’t allow Violet to back out. And so, Violet reluctantly agrees to be Finch’s partner on the assignment. She has one major condition if they travel together: “No cars. I’m not getting into a car.” (She’ll eventually change her mind about that too.)

There’s many scenes in All the Bright Places” that have all the characteristics of a sappy teen romance. Violet and Finch read Virginia Woolf quotes and other literary quotes to each other over the phone. Finch gives Violet a quote from “The Waves” that reads, “I feel a thousand capacities in you, even if you don’t think so.” Finch adds, “You’ve got at least a thousand capacities in you, even if you don’t think so.”

Violet and Finch see an outdoor art wall with chalk writings that say “Before I Die, I Want to….” and people can fill in the blanks. Finch completes the sentence by writing, “Stay Awake,” Violet answers, “Be Brave.” As they get closer, they eventually open up to each other about their hopes, fears and traumas that haunt them. They find a secluded wooded area near a lake that becomes a special place for them.

“All the Bright Places” sows the tender blossoming of Violet and Finch’s romance. However, there are parts of the movie that might irritate some people who will think that Finch is yet another “angry young black man” stereotype that’s seen in many other movies about troubled young people. Finch could have been played by an actor of any race. This movie obviously wants to be “color blind.”

However, it’s an artistic choice that brings some flaws when race is never even mentioned at all in the movie. And that’s very unrealistic for interracial couples, especially a couple still in high school and not old enough to have their own homes. Amanda warns Violet to stay away from Finch because he has a reputation for being “dangerous.” But Violet ignores this warning

Violet’s protective and loving parents seem very unaware of Finch’s troubled past. The parents’ ignorance or unwillingness to find out more about the teenage guy who’s been spending time with their daughter could be explained by speculating that Sheryl and James are so relieved tha Violet has found a new friend who’s bringing Violet out of her grief-stricken shell, they don’t want to find out anything bad about Finch.

And, for a while, things do go well for Violet and Finch, as they become each other’s close confidants. But the cracks in the relationship begin when Finch pulls a disappearing act. Violet is not prepared for dealing with Finch’s unpredictability, and she takes it very personally when he doesn’t respond to her messages for days. Violet has an insightful conversation with Charlie about how Finch has always been this erratic, but somehow Violet thinks that her love and friendship will be strong enough to help Finch improve.

What this movie shows, in very layered ways, is that signs of mental illness can be right in front of a loved one to see, but people often ignore these signs, or they think that with enough love, they can “fix” the person with the mental illness. It’s a common trap for people who end up being co-dependent in unhealthy ways. What Violet doesn’t understand is that she’s also vulnerable and hasn’t healed from her own emotional trauma (her grief has obviously made her depressed), so she’s not fully equipped to deal with Finch’s mental illness. It’s no one’s fault. That’s just the way it is.

Fanning (who is one of the producers of “All the Bright Places”) is extremely talented at conveying emotions that look so authentic that they don’t look like acting. Smith is also convincing in his role, but the movie has a tendency to give more weight to Violet’s perspective than Finch’s perspective. The technical aspects of “All the Bright Places” work best in Rob Givens’ cinematography, which gorgeously captures the landscapes of a Midwestern autumn. (The movie takes place in Indiana but was actually filmed in Ohio.)

But this movie wouldn’t work as well without Fanning’s and Smith’s admirable performances. Is there some typical teen melodrama in the movie? Absolutely. But in other ways, “All the Bright Places” is not a typical teen movie. It will make people feel a range of emotions that might cause discomfort but also a renewed appreciation for the fragility of life.

Netflix premiered “All the Bright Places” on February 28, 2020.