Robot Dreams (2024, dir. Pablo Berger)

by | Mar 20, 2024


JustWatch

Certificate: PG

Running Time: 102 mins

UK Distributor: Curzon

UK Release Date: 22 March 2024

WHO’S IN ROBOT DREAMS?

N/A

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Pablo Berger (director, writer, producer), Ibon Cormenzana, Ángel Durández, Ignasi Estapé, Sandra Tapia and Jérôme Vidal (producers), Alfonso de Vilallonga (composer), Fernando Franco (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A lonely dog builds himself a robot companion…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON ROBOT DREAMS?

For many, the one curiosity among this year’s five nominated films for the Best Animated Feature Oscar wasn’t Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, nor was it even the eventual winner The Boy and the Heron. Rather, it was a largely unheard-of entry titled Robot Dreams, an entirely wordless adaptation of Sara Varon’s graphic novel of the same name by Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger, which on the surface seemed like a cutesy 2D-animated tale set in a world of animals that appeared to be far more basic than the further-reaching narratives of those other nominated films.

Once you see Robot Dreams, however, you’ll know immediately that it is many things, but basic is not one of them. It is, in fact, a deeply emotional study of the unbalanced nature of friendships, one that conveys its utterly heartfelt findings through some of the most charming visual storytelling you might just in a film this year.

Set in 1980s New York, within a world entirely populated by animals, we first meet the incredibly lonely Dog as he’s playing a game of Pong by himself in his apartment, before microwaving a mac-and-cheese TV dinner for one and scrolling through MTV and various cooking shows. He soon comes across a commercial for a new robot model designed for friendship, and he immediately orders one that, after a breezy construction, quickly becomes his inseparable best friend. However, whilst spending the day together at the beach, Robot finds he is unable to move due to low battery and growing rust, forcing Dog to abandon him for the night and come back the next day with the appropriate tools – only to learn that the beach has now closed until the following summer, separating Dog and Robot for even longer. Both of them try to get on with their lives in the meantime, which in Robot’s case means dreaming a number of scenarios whilst he’s lying on the sandy beach collecting even more rust, until the day that they are – hopefully – reunited once more.

The title obviously comes from the various fantasies that Robot conjures up in his mechanical head whilst remaining in his singular location for most of the movie, including one involving a boat full of bunnies that ends up making things far worse for the paralysed android, and another that defies the fourth wall and wanders straight into a Wizard of Oz-inspired tap-dancing number. While those are engaging to watch, not to mention heart-breaking at times, the most poignant definition of the title Robot Dreams is the one that describes the unwavering bond that both Dog and Robot share with one another, as you see throughout the opening act how their instantaneous friendship brings out the best in both of them, and you can feel how genuinely happy they are to be together as they wander through the city dancing to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” on roller-skates.

It’s to a point where, after they are forced apart, you really do feel their separation anxiety kicking in hard, especially with Dog who, despite everything he does to try and socialise with others, cannot shake off his initial nerves that simply weren’t there with Robot around. As someone who constantly struggles in social situations to this day, I was exceptionally moved by the way that this film portrays that feeling of being alone while the world is seemingly out to get you, which happens often to both of its protagonists here, while variations of such events have undoubtedly happened to myself and other people who suffer from similar feelings of overwhelmed-ness whilst trying to make new friends.

The choice to present Robot Dreams without a single line of dialogue, with the only vocal noises being non-verbal grunts and the lyrics to numerous 80s songs on the soundtrack, is incredibly generous on the part of writer-director Berger, for it allows the animation to do the heaviest of lifting when it comes to visually conveying the most emotional parts of this story. The colourful animation is wondrous to look at, as there is much to enjoy in every little detail within the background, including numerous references to 80s pop culture like street hip-hop, The Shining, various arcade games, A Nightmare on Elm Street and more, while there is a clear love put into the hand-drawn character designs and street environments that cover everything from graffiti on the walls to the Twin Towers looming over the city in every other shot. You’d be hard-pressed to find a frame in this movie that isn’t in some way bursting with colour and energy, all captured within a storybook-like style that immediately presents its visuals with a universal appeal.

Most of all, though, the animation is vital to moving the story forward without any spoken words. You understand what each and every character is thinking through their varied facial expressions, in addition to picking up on their unique personalities that make them far from simplistic, which even some of the more innovating animated films out there struggle to convey through their overly expository writing. The animation here ends up saying far more than dialogue ever could, because it is dealing with themes that anyone can recognise right away, and without being explained how they should react to them, like they’re children. What Berger and his army of animators manage to do extremely well in Robot Dreams is to simply show these feelings for what they are, without dwelling too much on the “why” of it all and instead just focusing on the immediate emotional impact it is clearly having on these characters, without any spoken words required or even necessary.

People need to realise, now more than ever, that animation is not something made just for younger crowds. It is an all-encompassing medium that can tell all sorts of stories that anyone of any age can identify with and even have an emotional reaction to, and Robot Dreams is a perfect example of how artists like the ones working on this film can tell a universal tale about comprehensive topics like friendship and loneliness without relying on words to simplify things. On top of that, this is a powerful piece of cinema that looks gorgeous, has an enormous heart, and may even have you blubbing every time you hear “September” from here on.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Robot Dreams is a wondrous piece of animation that relies solely on its colourful visuals to tell a moving universal story about friendship and loneliness, which has so much emotion and charm to spare that it constantly reminds you of the true power of animation as a storytelling medium.

Five out of five stars

JustWatch

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