Robot Dreams

This Oscar-nominated animated gem explores love, loneliness, finding a connection and facing fate's chaos through the friendship of a dog and a robot.
Sarah Ward
Published on April 11, 2024


Heartbreak is two souls wanting nothing more than each other, but life having other plans. So goes Robot Dreams, another dialogue-free marvel from Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger, who had audiences feeling without words uttered with 2012's Blancanieves — and showed then with black and white imagery, as he does now with animation, that he's a master at deeply expressive visual storytelling. His fourth picture as a director was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2024 Academy Awards. In most years, if it wasn't up against Studio Ghibli's The Boy and the Heron, it would've taken home the Oscar. It earns not just affection instead, but the awe deserved of a movie that perfects the sensation of longing for someone to navigate life with, finding them, adoring them, then having fate doing what fate does by throwing up complications.

Usually this would be a boy-meets-girl, boy-meets-boy or girl-meets-girl story. Here, it's a dog-meets-robot tale. The time: the 80s, with nods to Tab and Pong to prove it. The place: a version of Manhattan where anthropomorphised animals are the only inhabitants — plus mechanised offsiders that, just by placing an order and putting together the contents of the package that arrives, can be built as instant friends. Eating macaroni meals for one and watching TV solo in his small East Village apartment each evening, Dog is achingly lonely when he orders his Amica 2000 after seeing an infomercial. As he tinkers to construct Robot, pigeons watch on from the window, but they've never been his company. Soon exuberantly strutting the streets hand in hand with his maker, the android is a dream pal, however, but this kismet pairing isn't what gives Robot Dreams its name.

What do two beings, human, animal, automaton or otherwise, do when they're falling head over heels for each other's presence? They glide through their suddenly sunny existence like there's nothing else in the world, joined at the hip and the spirit. This pair explore. They mosey blissfully around New York, which finally feels like a playground for Dog, rather than a place where everyone else is happy. They eat hot dogs from street vendors and dance on rollerskates in Central Park. They swoon over a shared favourite song — embracing the pull of Earth, Wind & Fire's 'September' (because if it can't bring folks together, cementing connections and glorious memories, then nothing can). As the summer nears its end, Dog and Robot also decamp to Coney Island, to the beach, for a cheery day of swimming and sunbathing, and also of relaxing slumbering on the shore.

Alongside slip-slop-slap advice, plus the rule that everyone is told as a kid about waiting before swimming after eating, Robot Dreams adds another piece of guidance: watch out that your metal mate doesn't rust and short-circuit from the saltwater and sea breeze if you're taking them out for sun, surf and sand. When Robot can't move after the duo wake up, Dog's only choice is to leave him there overnight, then return the next day with the requisite supplies. The season is truly saying farewell, though — and September, the month, takes on a more mournful tone than in the disco classic that cribs its moniker, as the film also goes on to reflect as the song keeps popping up. When Dog endeavours to bring Robot home, the beach is shut and gated. The reopening date: June 1 the following year, when summer approaches again.

In Berger's adaptation of Sara Varon's 2007 graphic novel of the same name — the author and illustrator's Chicken and Cat also gets a shoutout within the flick's frames — Blade Runner's "do androids dream of electric sheep?" isn't the question. Visions frolic through Robot's bucket-shaped head while he sleeps, all toying with the only query that anyone watching is asking: will Robot and Dog reunite? Robot Dreams is a movie of yearning, a picture about the unwanted surprises that can derail contentment and a portrait of the fact that that's the fundamental reality of life. This hauntingly candid truth blows through the film gently but crisply, like a flurry from the ocean on a mostly still day. It sweeps through The Wizard of Oz-inspired reveries and solitary Halloweens, too, plus new friendships forged with a family of birds, and also with the outgoing and outdoorsy Duck.

With its line-heavy 2D animation creating a world awash with loving details — the spooky costumes come October 31 are just one delight — this poignant tale is also one of reality and resilience. Everything that Robot Dreams muses on is handled with soul-stirring tenderness and astute recognition, such as the way that fulfilment can flow out with the tide for no other reason than that's how things work sometimes, that living is a balance of weathering disappointment and appreciating joy when and where you can interlace fingers with it, and that knowing when to ride what the next wave brings in is one of the most-crucial lessons there is. Premiering at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, and winning Best Film at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival the same year, Robot Dreams first debuted before animated series Carol & the End of the World hit Netflix; however, they share the same emotional texture, and the same being-seen sensation, like they've peered into hearts and minds to render the results with strokes, shapes and colours.

No words are needed to tell this narrative not only because that's Berger's savvy decision, but because no words are required to describe a journey that everyone has taken. We've all been Dog and we've all been Robot — forced to move on and left behind, that is — and so pictures here do say far more than dialogue ever could about the feeling of standing in both shoes (or paws, or metallic feet). As much of a toe-tapping gem now as it has been since its 1978 release and always will be, 'September' also conveys everything, crooning as it does about love changin' minds, chasin' clouds away, getting souls singin' and hearts ringin', and also about recalling such golden dreams and shiny days gone by. Do you remember revelling in the glow of someone that completes you, pining for them when they aren't by your side, and realising that everything is transient, elation and sorrow included? Thanks to Robot Dreams, you will.


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