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6. Robot Dreams © 2023 Arcadia Motion Pictures, Lokiz Films, Noodles Production, Les Films du Worso.png

The Oscar-Nominated 'Robot Dreams' Is A Magical, Melancholy Animated Masterpiece

By Jason Adams | Film | May 31, 2024 |

By Jason Adams | Film | May 31, 2024 |

6. Robot Dreams © 2023 Arcadia Motion Pictures, Lokiz Films, Noodles Production, Les Films du Worso.png

It’s a tale as old as time—Dog buys Robot. Dog loves Robot. Dog loses Robot. Dog buys New Robot. Old Robot loves New Raccoon. Everybody Dances to Earth Wind and Fire. I’m pretty sure these exact beats are drawn from the Bible—possibly mid-Leviticus? It’s that old of a story. But Spanish writer-director Pablo Berger (best known previously for the 2012 black-and-white fever-dream Blancanieves) breathes ye olde tale fresh life with Robot Dreams, his beautifully bittersweet animated Oscar nominee finally hitting screens today.

And like Blancanieves before it Robot Dreams is also wordless—unlike Denis Villenueve, who just longs for the pure cinema of silent imagery before tossing it aside in practice, Berger is putting his money where his (closed) mouth is. This film delivers exquisite longing and romance and humor all bundled up in an unfancy 2-D package and without speaking a solitary word to achieve it. There’s more heartbreak packed into one furtive glance between these cartoon characters than you’ll find anywhere across the glittering billion-dollar dunes of Arrakis.

The world of Robot Dreams is one slightly more recognizable than the one dreamt up by Frank Herbert though—it’s New York City in the 1980s. Graffiti and boom boxes reign supreme—it’s the city at its most vibrant and colorful, teeming with life and larger-than-life characters, a rich, smelly beast of a sense of place. It’s the one a lot of us grew up seeing on T.V. and in the movies—the city from Ghostbusters or Kate & Allie. Stoops and hot dog carts and fire hydrant spray. The vision that made me want to move here. And if you’re just gunning for good old-school New York City representation, Robot Dreams is the ticket (or should I say subway token). It’s one for the pantheon. Punks in the East Village, swimming and sand castles at Coney Island, roller-skating in Central Park—it all gets the magical treatment. The kind that reminds even a jaded multi-decade resident like myself that oh yeah—this place can be a wonder, can’t it?

There’s one thing that truly sets this movie’s NYC apart, though—everybody’s an animal. Literally. (Unlike the real world, where we’re just figuratively so.) Which brings us to our main character, Dog. Yes, just named Dog. Not every animal in the film’s world is named with the creativity that Holly Golightly displayed on her cat, Cat, though—we do meet a few animals with proper names. Given this is a city of eight million people—excuse me, animals—it’d be a little confusing if every dog was simply Dog, after all. But this Dog, our central dog, is just Dog. Easy enough to remember.

Based on the 2007 graphic novel by Sara Varon (who also co-wrote the script with Berger), we drop into Robot Dreams watching Dog go about their day to day, which is lonely but not miserably so. Dog seems okay enough. Upbeat, even. Until one day Dog looks out their window and sees some neighbors across the way being all lovey-dovey. And Dog looks down at their mediocre microwave dinner bubbling its sad little tune and we see, in an instant, a longing kick in. Suddenly Dog’s apartment seems a little sad, a little empty.

Thankfully T.V. comes to the rescue—this is the 1980s after all, when such optimism in the format seemed still possible. An infomercial tunes into Dog’s inner whimper, offering up instant robot companionship just one 1-800 dial away. And seemingly before Dog can even set aside their mac-and-cheese, a crate’s being delivered to their doorstep with their new insta-bestie on-board. One quick assemblage montage later and Dog, meet Robot. And Dog’s life (nor Robot’s, such as it is) will never be the same.

The question of Robot’s personal sentience burbles up now and again, but mostly Berger sets Asmiov’s laws of artificial intelligence to the side to instead give us a tale of friendship—and perhaps more than friendship, although Robot Dreams doesn’t go any further into physical intimacy than simple hand-holding. (At one point we do learn that birds in this world have buttholes though, so who truly knows what shenanigans Dog and Robot were getting up to off-screen.) And the two hit it off like firecrackers—Robot’s sense of wonder at the world it’s being introduced to is infectious, and Dog begins to see everything through the same sunny smiling lens. Oh, what fun they have.

This happy but woefully brief moment of time, set mainly to Earth Wind and Fire’s eternal bop “September,” will echo across the melancholy remainder of Robot Dreams, as inevitably complications intervene. Because September leads to fall and to winter, to cold and separations—Berger’s tale is anything but two-dimensional as it complicates our duo’s relationship with themes one could tag mature, minus that word’s semi-pornographic inclination. (Probability of buttholes aside.)

It turns out Robot does have dreams of its own—a vivid interior life that Berger animates with virtuosic technicolor glee. One such dream sequence, set inside an NYC-by-way-of-Oz hybrid involving Busby-Berkeley-esque flowers and an Emerald Twin Towers, proves especially giddy… until the sadness washes us back out to icy sea, anyway.

The tug of war between loneliness and companionship, between the lines that separate one’s self from one’s beloved, is anything but flat matte background here—it’s the very meat of the piece. Flip a switch on Robot, and it’s just like the rest of us, stumbling that yellow-brick road to find a beating heart to shove inside an empty chest. And no matter Dog’s good intentions or valiant efforts, these are trips we must move our own legs down—painful rusted step after painful rusted step. Until eventually we’ve learned enough about ourselves to dance, and to dance hard. “Only blue talk and love, remember / The true love we share today.”