Design by Meghana Tummala

Not every children’s movie has something to offer adults. They can’t all be an “Inside Out” or a  “Soul,” the themes of which I still regularly think about. But among films for children, there is a divide between those that respect their audience and those that do not. In Locksmith Animation’s “Ron’s Gone Wrong,” the creators seemed to think that ignoring structural weaknesses and bad jokes wouldn’t be a problem. But despite the belief that children will like anything animated with mediocre humor, scenes of robots beating people up cannot replace a thoughtful story. Even a young audience loses interest when a film lacks depth.

The movie follows Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer, “It”), a friendless middle-schooler. He is the only kid in his class, and perhaps in the world, who does not have a B-Bot. These oblong, dog-sized robots have the functions of an iPhone, plus capabilities to roll after their owners and give high fives. When Barney’s father caves and gets him a B-Bot later nicknamed Ron (Zach Galifianakis, “Between Two Ferns: The Movie”), it’s unfortunately broken: It cannot connect to the “Bubble network,” meaning it can’t find friends for Barney like it’s supposed to do. Barney decides to teach Ron to be his friend after its lack of anti-violence programming allows it to attack his bully. Meanwhile, Bubble, the company that makes the bots, tries to track down Ron.

So it’s supposed to be about friendship, right? That much is clear, although there is a prominent undertone of “social media is evil.” But the movie’s message about friendship is never obvious, stripping it of its potential impact. The film hints that making friends using a robot is problematic, that becoming friends with a robot is no good either, that friendship is a two-way street (even if one of the friends is a robot) and that social media is the cause of problems like bullying and loneliness. But it never commits to one of these themes.

Perhaps the most confusing of the film’s conflicting messages is that friendship is valuable, but connecting over social media is not. The purpose of the B-Bots was to find friends for their owners. The film’s climax, however, results in the bots’ loss of this ability. They can act as friends themselves, as Ron could, but cannot connect people with one another. The message emerges that being friends with a robot is more valuable than finding friendship through social media.

The more interesting parts of the story are those inside of the Bubble tech company. CEO Marc (Justice Smith, “The Voyeurs”) says that his original vision for the bots was for them to be friends for their owners, not social media devices. The bots, as they are, cause the same problems as any social media: Their owners become obsessed with followers and going viral. But Ron, who acts as a friend instead of an iPhone on wheels, is problematic too. What makes him able to be Barney’s friend and for them to have fun together is, at least in part, his violence.

Of course, a movie for children prefers an ending happier than “humans inherently cause problems regardless of what technology they have.” The violence and seclusion caused by Ron’s broken programming is forgotten when all other B-Bots are re-programmed in this way. The resulting “everything is perfect now” ending is especially unsatisfying because problems like Ron’s violence and Barney’s lack of human friends were never resolved. Any cute scenes or decent jokes are outnumbered by jokes that don’t land and mixed messages about technology and social media. There are movies out there that offer something meaningful to children and adults alike, but the disjointed story of “Ron’s Gone Wrong” is not one of them.

Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at erinev@umich.edu.