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: ‘Big Time Adolescence,’ starring Pete Davidson

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Griffin Gluck and Pete Davidson in “Big Time Adolescence” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

“Big Time Adolescence”

Directed by Jason Orley

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. suburban city, the comedy/drama “Big Time Adolescence” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A high-school student’s close friendship with an older guy who’s a stoner ends up being problematic for the student.

Culture Audience: “Big Time Adolescence” will appeal primarily to people who like male-centric coming-of-age stories or stories about young people partying.

Pete Davidson and Griffin Gluck in “Big Time Adolescence” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

“Big Time Adolescence” is just another way of saying “Overgrown Man-Boy,” which is the typecast persona that “Saturday Night Live” star Pete Davidson has cultivated for himself so far in his entertainment career. It’s exactly this type of person that Davidson plays in this comedy/drama, where his Zeke character is an irresponsible stoner in his early 20s who’s a bad influence on high-school student Monroe “Mo” Harris (played by Griffin Gluck), who is Zeke’s best friend.

Viewers know this from the beginning of the story, which shows in the opening scene that Mo is getting taken out of his classroom by a police officer. And Mo says in a voiceover that it’s Zeke’s fault that Mo got into this mess. What exactly is the mess that has gotten Mo in trouble with the law?

Most of the rest of the movie shows what happened that led up to this moment. In a flashback to six years earlier, Mo became friends with Zeke when Mo was about 10 years old and Zeke was about 16. At the time, Zeke was dating Mo’s sister Kate (played by Emily Arlook), who eventually broke up with Zeke because she suspected that he was cheating on her. The night that they broke up, Mo asked Zeke if he and Zeke could still be friends. At first, Zeke doesn’t think it’s good idea, but Mo insists and Zeke relents, and off they ride in Zeke’s car.

Over the next six years, Mo and Zeke have become close enough that they consider each other to be “best friends” and have what might be considered something like an older brother/younger brother relationship. Now 16 years old, Mo hasn’t made any real friends in high school. His social life revolves around hanging out with Zeke and Zeke’s fellow dimwitted stoner friends, which include Danny (played by Omar Shariff Brunson Jr.) and Nick (played by Colson Baker, also known as rapper Machine Gun Kelly).

Mo isn’t a complete loner at school. He’s on the baseball team, but he does not excel there. He’s not good enough to be frequently chosen for playing on the field during games, and it adds to his insecurities. Mo wants to quit the team, but his supportive parents Reuben and Sherri (played by Jon Cryer and Julia Murney) urge him to not give up.

Zeke goes to watch Mo at baseball practice, where he sits far away from Reuben and Sherri and is shown to be the loudest and most irritating spectator on the benches. Instead of giving Mo tips to improve his baseball playing, Zeke encourages Mo to not take a swing when he’s at bat and instead take the lazier option of base on balls (also known as a walk) to get to first base.

Zeke has his own house that he inherited from his late grandmother. It’s party central at the home, but somehow, up until a certain point in the story, Mo has managed to never get stoned, although he does partake in underage drinking when he’s with Zeke. Even though it’s entirely believable that Mo declined to smoke marijuana while being Zeke’s friend, what’s harder to believe is that Mo never got a contact high from all the years of partying with Zeke and his friends.

The movie shows Mo’s first “contact high” with Zeke much later in the story, when a stoner friend from Zeke’s murky past just happens to see Zeke and Mo while they’re out driving in Zeke’s car.  Zeke’s long-lost pal wants to catch up and get high for old time’s sake and makes Zeke close all the car windows while they smoke blunts.

Even though Mo spends a lot of time with hard-partying Zeke, Mo is very sheltered when it comes to dating. It’s revealed in the movie that not only is he a virgin, but he’s also never been on a date or kissed or girl. Considering the kind of person Zeke is and how he pushes Mo so hard to be a reckless partier, it’s kind of unrealistic that Mo didn’t get involved in drugs sooner. We’re supposed to believe that during the relatively short period of time that this movie takes place (about a month or two), Mo’s life suddenly took a downward spiral because of Zeke.

What flipped this switch? For starters, Mo got his driver’s license, which allows him to have more freedom. The other thing that happens is that Mo unexpectedly gets a chance to hang out with some of the “cool” older kids in school. But there’s a catch.

He’s invited to his first high-school house party by a fellow nerd named Will, who goes by the nickname Stacy (played by Thomas Barbusca). Stacy says that he was invited to the party because Stacy promised the older kids that he would bring alcohol, but Stacy doesn’t know how to get alcohol and he needs Mo to get the alcohol through Zeke. In return, Mo will get to go to the party as Stacy’s guest.

When Mo tells Zeke about the party, Zeke immediately sees it as an opportunity to sell some of his marijuana and make a profit. He tells Mo that Mo has to be the one to sell the weed at the party because Mo is underage and the legal consequences won’t be as severe if he gets caught. Mo is extremely reluctant, but since he idolizes Zeke, Mo is convinced to do it. As part of the deal, Zeke says that he will split the profits with Mo.

Things go much better at the party than Mo expected. Not only was he instantly accepted because he brought alcohol and marijuana, but he also got to connect at the party with a fellow student named Sophie (played by Oona Laurence), who’s been a secret crush of his from afar. Sophie is smart with a sarcastic sense of humor. She finds Mo’s awkwardness endearing, even though she’s trying to hide some of her awkwardness too.

Mo felt so good about his first party experience with his high-school peers that he jumps at the chance when he’s invited to another house party soon afterward. At the first party, he and Zeke made a tidy profit from the drug sales, so Zeke wants Mo to keep selling marijuana at these parties. Zeke has even quit his job as a sales clerk at an appliance store because he figures that he can make enough money by overcharging high school students for drug sales, so he doesn’t have to work.

Zeke literally tells Mo all of this, but naïve Mo still acts surprised that Zeke doesn’t want a job and would rather sit back and let Mo do all the dirty work in the drug deals while Zeke reaps the monetary benefits. Mo protests and says his drug dealing at the party was just a “one-time thing.” But once again, Mo gives in to whatever Zeke wants because Mo is desperate to look “cool.”

That desperation is reinforced when an attractive older girl approaches Mo at school and asks him if he can score her some molly, which she wants him to bring to the next house party. Feeling buoyed by this attention, Mo says yes and asks Zeke for help to get some molly. Of course, Zeke has the molly that Mo requests, along with a stash of other drugs that are randomly lying around his house.

Reuben and Sherri sense that Zeke isn’t a very good influence on Mo, but they still let Mo hang out with Zeke because Mo seems to be doing well-enough in his school academics and they don’t want Mo to resent them for being too restrictive. Reuben is more suspicious of Zeke than Sherri is. In a private moment alone with Zeke, Reuben even gives Zeke same cash to keep Mo out of trouble. Zeke takes the money. But then, like the smarmy person that he is, he asks Reuben for a raise. Reuben just has to shake his head and walk away.

Meanwhile, Mo starts a budding romance with Sophie. She’s his first date and first kiss. But once again, Zeke interferes by advising Mo to play hard to get after a while, in order to manipulate Sophie to like Mo even more. Zeke has a girlfriend named Holly (played by Sydney Sweeney), who is nice to Mo and very tolerant of Zeke’s childish ways. Holly parties with Zeke and his friends, but she also does things like cook for Zeke and make his house more domestic.

Unbeknownst to Mo and Holly, Zeke is still in love with Mo’s sister Kate, who is planning to go to law school. Zeke and Kate have a parking-lot hookup in Zeke’s car, but it’s an encounter that she immediately regrets and tells Zeke that it won’t happen again. She has also moved on to a responsible live-in boyfriend named Doug (played by Esteban Benito), who is the type of ambitious art-collecting yuppie that Zeke despises but secretly envies.

We know that Zeke is insecure about not measuring up to someone like Doug because not long after meeting Doug (when Mo convinces Zeke to drive him over to Kate and Doug’s place), Zeke and Mo go to an art museum (it was Zeke’s idea of course), where Zeke tells Mo that he can appreciate art too. But viewers see how unsophisticated Zeke is when he foolishly thinks he can buy one of the paintings on display and offers a museum employee cash on the spot. (Whatever amount he offered was also obviously laughable.) Zeke has to settle for buying an oversized print at the museum gift shop instead.

The movie doesn’t really show what kind of academic student Mo is, but it’s implied that he’s probably good enough to consider going to college. However, Mo is definitely not “street smart.” He doesn’t realize until it’s too late that his new “social status” at school is very superficial because it’s about people using him to get drugs.

Mo’s relationship with Zeke is a little more complicated because of the big brother/little brother relationship they’ve had over the years. As Mo says about Zeke near the beginning of the film, “He was the man and he made me feel like the man.” But this type of co-dependence has now turned dark, as Mo gets more involved in dealing drugs to fellow students. The movie doesn’t let Mo off the hook so easily by portraying him as a completely innocent child corrupted by an adult, because despite Zeke’s influence, Mo still knew right from wrong and had a choice to do what he did.

As Kate tells Mo, it’s weird that Zeke wants to be best friends with a teenager, and it’s only because Mo makes Zeke feel cool. But to the rest of the world, Zeke isn’t cool. Mo ignores Kate’s warnings about Zeke. But there are signs that Mo knows she’s right, such as when Mo mentions to Zeke that he’s thinking of introducing Sophie to Zeke, but Mo asks Zeke to not make the moment into “The Zeke Show.”

Davidson has made a career of being an often-obnoxious, immature guy who’s not as funny as he thinks he is. Zeke is that kind of person too, so if you’re not a fan of Davidson, his Zeke character is going to wear very thin because it just seems like Davidson is playing a version of himself for the entire movie.

“Big Time Adolescence” is the first feature film from writer/director Jason Orley, who also directed Davidson’s “Alive From New York” Netflix comedy special. If Orley and Davidson continue to work together, it’ll be interesting to see if they can do something different from the same “man-child” shtick that Davidson has been stuck on repeat in doing. The Zeke character is almost a caricature because there’s no real depth to him, and the movie tells almost nothing about his background.

Because the movie revealed from the beginning that Mo gets arrested, there’s not much suspense to “Big Time Adolescence.” And it’s certainly not an original idea to do a movie about teenagers and young adults who like to party. But what saves this movie from complete mediocrity is Gluck’s authentic and sometimes emotionally touching performance as Mo, because Mo (not Zeke) is ultimately the one who grows up and is the character in the movie that audiences will care about the most.

Hulu released “Big Time Adolescence” in select U.S. cinemas and began streaming the movie on March 13, 2020. The streaming premiere date was moved up from March 20, 2020.

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