As you may have already spotted, it's been a rare bad week for Disney at the domestic box office. The illustrious underperformance of Ridley Scott's The Last Duel (too long? too medieval? too rape-based?) has made the biggest industry headlines, but looking beyond that, when was the last time a new Disney-distributed animation opened at number five? (And behind the universally shrugged-off The Addams Family 2, at that.) Ron's Gone Wrong was never going to have the might of the Pixar marketing machine behind it: it hails from a new UK animation studio, Locksmith, and it's ended up with Disney via the megacorp's new minions 20th Century Studios (formerly Fox). That we're witnessing a new animation model is evident onscreen from the decision to run credits for key creatives upfront, rather than in the closing moments - including one for the unexpected exec-prod alliance of Elisabeth Murdoch and writer-directors Sarah Smith and Peter Baynham (yes, that Peter Baynham). All parties may well be confident that the film will claw its way back to financial parity over the half-term rollout: if the marketplace has taught us anything, it's that kids' films, which can hold onto matinee slots several months after first release, are possessed of a longer tail than almost anything else around, such that a Croods 2 - a film to which no adult has willingly travelled - can presently stand among the year's biggest successes.
One factor in Ron's Gone Wrong going commercially wrong (at least as things stand) may be the old story of two studios landing upon the same idea simultaneously: our communal tech fetish has already been lampooned by Netflix's Sony buy-in The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Smith and Baynham have boiled down mounting parental concerns over screen time and poured them into the vessel of a single must-have item: the BubbleBot, a sleek, wipeclean hybrid of Alexa and the Nintendo character Kirby who promises children a best friend "right out of the box". The film's first funny idea is that poor Barney Pudowski (voiced by Jack Dylan Glazer) - son of a single father, from Slavic immigrant stock - should wind up with what's effectively a BubbleBot knockoff, found in a skip, lacking the requisite software updates, and apparently on the verge of some terrible malfunction, a feeling only enhanced by Zach Galifianakis's voice work. This somehow feels like an innately British idea, arrived at by creatives who spent their formative years sat before Tomorrow's World watching America's cool kids get their hands on the shiniest bits of kit, and who then had to wait forever for the technology to cross the Atlantic or make do with the cheaper market own-brand variant.
There's an identifiable tension within these frames, and it stems from a difference of outlook high up within the chain of command, possibly even between Murdoch, Smith and Baynham; it's what happens when you invite silly Brits into an environment as solemnly businesslike as the modern American boardroom. (Smith and Baynham's last collaboration - on Arthur Christmas, an Aardman production released under the Sony banner - had much the same issue, torn between making something idiosyncratic and making something for easy global export.) The new film unfolds in a generic American Everytown, complete with generic junior-high corridors containing generic school bullies. But its funnier lines are funnier than the animation average - the kind of out-there suggestions that would likely be suppressed at the committee stage of bigger studio productions. Most of these go to Barney's exuberantly Russian grandmother Donka, voiced by Olivia Colman (who continues to bear out the new Spitting Images: she really is in everything nowadays). Informed there's a three-month waiting list for a brand-new BubbleBot, she's heard to mutter "what is this, Stalinist Russia?"; later, we learn she fixed her own hernia "with only a bread knife and vodka". The relationship between boy and toy develops goofily, too. There are traces of the enduring E.T. here, underlined when Barney and Ron (named for the first letters of his barcode) flee BubbleCorp heavies on a scooter; and the pair's rapport occasionally resembles that of toddler and older brother trying to stop sibling from running into traffic.
But for the longest while, that central bond operates on the level of pure chaos; the childproof locks are well and truly ripped off, and for 45 minutes at its centre, the film becomes properly entertaining and surprising. Here again, Smith and Baynham look to be working with a far freer hand: there's a gag about babysnatching that I suspect the tightly regimented Pixar crew would have nixed on the grounds it might trigger onlooking guardians. Pity that the finale should revert to the generic: an overextended raid on BubbleCorp HQ that ditches the gags in favour of sub-Brad Bird action, and makes off with only sappy homilies on friendship. Locksmith are still in their R&D phase: they're testing how far they can deviate from the multiplex animation template, and how far they want to deviate from the multiplex animation template. That this is still, bottom line, studio product can be seen from the time, thought and energy expended on the broadly insignificant matter of who's running BubbleCorp - an entirely corporate subplot that's only here because the creative team want to please everyone, including their paymasters. There have been worse ambitions, but the best sequences in Ron's Gone Wrong - the scenes where Smith and Baynham really do seem to get it right - are those that take place beyond this bubble, in its digitised real world. It's here that the film spots the advantage of switching off the algorithms, recalibrating one's commercial expectations, and generally loosening up. These things can be daft inflatable lilos rather than machine-tooled juggernauts! And that's OK!
Ron's Gone Wrong is now playing in cinemas nationwide.