For fledgling animation studios, the first impression is always the most important. Pixar managed to cement their brand of heartfelt, pop culture-inflected storytelling straight out the gate with Toy Story; Aardman captured their highly specific Britishness with the Wallace and Gromit series; Laika showed their horror-inspired bonafides through the Henry Selick-directed Coraline. It may seem crass to reduce the work of several singular filmmakers to an overriding house style, but this simplification is often key to why these studios have managed to have longevity in the public imagination.

And while filmmaking should not be seen as a branding exercise, Ron’s Gone Wrong is a film that is perhaps only possible to view in the context of being one. The debut film produced by London-based animation studio Locksmith is, as the audience was told by producers at its recent UK premiere, a British film “with global ambition.” Unsurprisingly, the film itself (from debut directors Sarah Smith and Jean-Philippe Vine) feels overly familiar, borrowing liberally from E.T., but featuring a plethora of nods to family classics more beloved than it will ever be. Considering the story features a tech genius whose creation has reduced friendship to a formula, it’s somewhat fitting that it feels like soulless, algorithmic filmmaking.

Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer) is an awkward middle school kid, and the only boy in his class to not have a B-bot, a robot designed to connect children with new friendship groups based entirely on their social media likes and preferences. This has led him to become an outcast, his childhood friendships now moved on because of new pairings in the algorithm. On his birthday, his dad (Ed Helms) and Russian grandmother Donka (Olivia Colman, the only voice actor in the film who sounds like they’re having fun in the booth) realize Barney’s loneliness, so set about buying one––only to discover there’s a three-month waiting list. 

Undeterred, they see a B-bot being loaded into the back of a van and buy it off the owner. The problem? When Barney tries to turn it on the next day, he discovers it’s severely malfunctioned, prone to causing destruction, and not coming with the same safety settings as every other model. As he begins to bond with B-bot Ron (Zach Galifianakis), he realizes that he has finally made a friend, even as he is leaving ample destruction in his wake.

If the films and shorts created by Aardman wear their British peculiarities as a point of pride, Ron’s Gone Wrong aims to establish Locksmith as a major UK studio by hiding all evidence of its country of origin. It’s far from the first British production to be set across the pond, but based on the comments from filmmakers, it’s hard not to feel a deeply cynical intent because of it––a film set in America purely because that’s the tried and tested formula with the most success. After all, it’s an approach that seems to inform most of the storytelling decisions in the screenplay by Smith and Peter Baynham, whose moral insights about friendship aren’t exactly innovative, even when placed within a more contemporary story of young social-media addiction. If anything, centering a familiar moralistic argument about how relationships with friends shouldn’t be reduced to shared interests next to a crankier one telling kids to get off their damn phones just makes it feel less in touch with its audience.

Comparisons with the similarly themed The Mitchells vs the Machines––which coincidentally also features a vocal performance from Colman––are likely to be numerous, and considerably unfair as both were in production simultaneously. But it’s not uncharitable to say Ron’s Gone Wrong will exist firmly within its shadow. That film may be far cheesier than its supporters gave it credit for, but there is at least an earnestness to how it explores family relationships in an era defined by technology, emotionally grounding a high concept story of digital apocalypse. There is nothing in Smith and Vine’s film that feels as grounded in believable relationship dynamics, its focus on family and friendship relying on cliches over anything that could be assumed to have been inspired by the filmmakers’ own experiences, heightened for the big screen.

Of course, the very nature of algorithmic filmmaking at this level is that it doesn’t entirely falter. Some gags manage to land throughout the journey, and there is enjoyment that comes from the staging of Ron’s violent, destructive streak in its middle stretch. But there is nothing that ever feels particularly inspired; even when operating at its best, Ron’s Gone Wrong still cribs far too closely from other films to ever stand on its own two feet. With this in mind, it can’t be too much of a surprise that its attempts to introduce Locksmith as a singular voice in animation have, well, gone wrong. 

Ron’s Gone Wrong premiered at the BFI London Film Festival and will be released in theatres on October 22.

Grade: C

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