Set against the backdrop of the social media age, the animated adventure Ron’s Gone Wrong tells the story of a socially awkward middle-schooler and Ron, his new walking, talking, digitally-connected device, which is supposed to be his ‘”Best Friend out of the Box.”
The theatrical release of Ron’s Gone Wrong, the first title from U.K. based Locksmith Animation, could not be timelier. The story of a real-world friendship in a world dominated by online relationships, strikes a chord with children, adults and families of all shapes and sizes. The film addresses the fundamentals of friendship, from what constitutes friendship to how they take hold and grow to how we sustain them. And that being an authentic version of yourself is more valuable than having the cool device.
“This film has an important message that both parents and children will understand,” says producer Julie Lockhart. “The amount of time a kid spends on screen and the effect it has on parents and the worry that it causes parents, and the family as a whole, is something everyone can appreciate…and, of course, it just looks beautiful on the big screen.”
During the development process, the filmmakers talked a lot about their memories of childhood and compared notes about their kids, who all asked the same question: what do I do when I don’t have anyone to talk to at recess? What’s more, everyone knew someone whose kid had been trolled online. It got the filmmakers thinking about every parent’s lament.
“Like every parent, I experienced that awful moment when my kid came home saying, ‘I didn’t have anyone to play with today,’ says co-director/co-writer/executive producer Sarah Smith, who directed the film with Pixar veteran Jean-Philippe (JP) Vine (story artist on “Cars 3” and The Good Dinosaur) and Octavio E. Rodriguez (story artist on Coco and The Incredibles 2) co-directing, from a screenplay by Peter Baynham (Arthur Christmas, Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm) and Smith.
“Your heart breaks. But now they face the pressures of social media too, making it even harder. We wanted to make a movie about kids’ friendships in the social media age and that universal feeling that every child has that everyone else has got it all sorted except them…Most of us carry that feeling throughout our lives.”
The universality of the emotion strikes a chord with co-writer/executive producer Peter Baynham, who found those same feelings from adolescence roared back with gust.
“I remember being at the very grand home of a studio boss,” said Baynham. “It was a very swank affair and I found myself standing alone at the food table trying to look incredibly busy because I didn’t know anyone there. That feeling of being on the outside looking in never truly goes away, does it? It’s such a universal human emotion, so we knew we had something authentic that was going to endear Barney to the audience.”
“I’m always looking for a personal connection to an idea as a parent,” says Smith. “I want every movie to be a message in a bottle from me to my kid and from other parents to their kids. In a way, some of where Ron comes from are the things that I wanted to say to my daughter sitting on her bed at night when she was worried about not having friends and you want to say, ‘it will be okay…you will find those friends, and just because you don’t have them now doesn’t mean that it’s not coming.’ And that is what drives the emotion of Ron, really: those things that you want your kid to understand so that they don’t go through all the pain and suffering as they grow up.”
Smith drew inspiration from the Spike Jonze film “Her,” in which Joaquin Phoenix’s character falls in love with an AI operating system. “I remember thinking, we need to make that film for kids because children are so immersed in the online experience and they have no filter,” she says. “They don’t get a sense that maybe that’s not a reliable voice, or that something else may be going on.”
“People today are living through chat, posts and likes/dislikes, but the dorky, contrarian, hilarious friendship of Barney and Ron— built through shared experience—is a powerful reminder of the best things about growing up,” says Smith.
“Children have had their fill of screens because almost all their relationships have been reduced to on screen,” Smith continues. “Therefore, I think the appeal of a one-on-one, face-to-face human friendship is really strong right now, especially for children. They want to get outside and play in the woods and play with their friends in the way you see Barney and Ron doing. The sitting at home with your screen is kind of counterbalanced, so hopefully that gives it an extra relevance.
“The thing that most families argue about these days is screen time,” says Lockhart. “As children get older parents worry about them going out into this the world of social media and the pressure they will feel to become something that they are not. ‘Ron’s Gone Wrong’ is a classic friendship story between a kid who is socially awkward and his new best friend, which, in this case, happens to be a broken robot, and their journey to teach one another about friendship.”
“The world today is fully saturated in technology…it has become a necessity in our lives,” codirector JP Vine says. “And people are more and more exposed through that to people and interests that are similar to their own. Our film is really taking a look at what that means for the world of friendship. Ron and Barney are an unlikely pair of buddies, completely different, but through the course of the movie build a powerful bond that becomes incredibly fulfilling for each of them. The film is a celebration of friendship, especially the messy ones! Because Ron has no awareness of the social tech all the other bots are using, he has to build his own version of friendship with Barney. And it’s a ton of fun to watch him do it!”
“In some respects, the social media and digital aspect of friendships have been a saving grace during the grind of the pandemic,” offers Lockhart. “But there are so many unknowns in terms of how it is affecting our children’s friendships. It’s just a great thing to explore in the film, so it is about the definition of friendship and how one can understand what real friendship is, as opposed to a digitally simulated friendship. And let’s not forget that Barney and Ron have a tremendous amount of fun together and that was a big part of what we wanted to convey.”
Co-director JP Vine, who makes his directorial debut on Ron’s Gone Wrong, after superlative story recognized the story’s potential to become a classic straight away.
“I just thought it was a really powerful and simple story that kind of got to the heart of what it’s like to be a kid and what it’s like to be a parent in this particular technological age,” he says. “It just felt like it had the makings of a classic. And then when I came over to London and met the Locksmith team, it really appealed to me to come back to the U.K. and be part of building a really ambitious startup in London, a city that I love. None of us could have anticipated what chaos the world would be thrown into because of the pandemic or how it would affect our filmmaking process.”
“It was really important to us that the audience understand that everyone has insecurities,” says Vine. “We talked about the whole technology thing, it comes with a number of issues on its own, and loneliness, or how we are tribal with technology. But the thing that hits me the most is the sense that Barney is all wound up about being a kid on the sidelines, and by the end of the film he is totally comfortable with who he is.”