No Movie This Year Will Make You Cry Like ‘Robot Dreams’

If you’ve heard the movie Robot dreams being named one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Oscars and saying, “What the hell is that?” you are not alone. Directed by Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger, this intrepid little film has taken a long time to make its way to the United States. After premiering to raves at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, Robot dreams slowly trickled down to a few other festivals and had a brief, under-the-radar Oscar qualifying run in the US. But the film’s distributor, Neon, failed to get it wide attention in the United States before the Oscars, leading many to question their release strategy and even go so far as to say they had completely ruined the film’s momentum.

While questions about whether the film could have been bigger with a different approach to the release are valid, they fall by the wayside once you sit in front of the door. Robot dreams, which takes you from the opening images of a vividly illustrated ’80s New York City. Here, a bipedal dog named Dog languishes in his apartment, surfing between rounds of Pong. The glow of his television distracts him from his window, where he can catch glimpses of other animal couples and friends enjoying their time together. When Dog sees a TV ad for a mechanical mail-order buddy named Robot, he jumps at the chance for some company. Robot dreams‘ sweet story begins.

Where this dialogue-free animated film takes you in just 102 minutes is nothing short of masterful. The film is a feat of sound and vision, with beautiful foley work and a beautifully composed score that keeps the pace at a pleasant stroll. Because the film contains no dialogue, it is even more powerful. Robot dreams focuses on your soul with a story that transcends language; the intense emotional moments do not come from words but from actions. It may be trite to say that love is the only language everyone can understand, but that doesn’t make it any less true, and the film finds wonderful new ways to illustrate this. And even though it’s not all happy, Robot dreamssad moments make this whimsical friendship story all the more real.

During the first 20 minutes, Robot dreams bursting with the sweet, sunny vitality of a warm summer day in the city. After Robot arrives, Dog collects his purchase and discovers that while Robot needs some guidance when it comes to assimilating into the public, it was money well spent. The two are fast friends and sip Tab together as they stroll down the street past laundromats, bakeries, barbershops and electronics stores, each filled with their own unique furry characters. A trip to Central Park introduces the narrative centerpiece of the film as Robot and Dog hold hands while looking for a place to roller skate. As he watches the two friends kill him on their skates, a nearby lion brings out a boombox and the pair skate-dance to Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September.”

A production still from Robot Dreams.

A production still from Robot Dreams.

Wild forest

This needle drop is a crucial part of Robot dreams that will find its way back into the story again and again, and somehow never tire the viewer, despite “September” being a great yet classic overplayed song. (Otherwise I won’t hear any arguments!) A lovely piano cover of the tune shows up in the next scene, when Dog and Robot take a trip to Coney Island to relax on the beach. Putting a robot in water seems like a risky move, and even though this advanced piece of technology can swim and dive, the Robot still needs some oil to move after coming into contact with the ocean. It’s a misstep that Dog doesn’t realize, and when the beach closes and Robot can’t get up to go with him, Dog tries in vain to help his friend before tucking him in and leaving home for the night, to to return in the morning with some oil to take him home.

There’s just one problem: that day was the end of the season and the beach is now closed until next summer. And although Dog tries everything in his power – legal or otherwise – to get to the beach to save his friend, he ends up in trouble every time. Suddenly this cheerful film turns terribly gloomy, but Berger and co-writer Sara Varon handle this twist with careful hands and realism. We are reminded that sometimes occasional rifts in a friendship may not be anyone’s fault, but that doesn’t make them any less hurt. And as the seasons change – and Dog looks at the calendar, waiting for the beach to open again – both Dog and Robot realize that finding someone you’re really close with is much harder than they ever could have realized.

Although this is a seemingly simple sentiment, Robot dreams confirms it repeatedly with beautifully animated vignettes, giving the audience a taste of what each character is up to. Dog tries his best to make a new friend while waiting for his best buddy to become accessible to him again, but in the isolating world of New York City, connecting proves difficult. However, the robot has it a little easier and becomes a useful tool for the creatures that visit the beach out of season. Other times, Berger and Varon let us peek into Robot’s programming, where he imagines fantastic scenarios where he and Dog are together again, leaving you grinning from ear to ear until we’re thrust back into a colder reality.

Julio Torres’ ‘Fantasmas’ will shock and delight you

Robot dreamsThe deft balance between the warmth of the world and its cold indifference is one of the film’s greatest strengths. While the film’s vision of 1980s New York may be filled with animals and not people, it is no different from the vision we consider ours. That’s one of the film’s clever tricks: showing how camaraderie is an interspecies phenomenon not unique to humanity. Love and connection extend beyond what a human mind can comprehend, seeping into the animal instincts of dogs, ducks, cats, giraffes, raccoons and more.

Of course, Dog will eventually return to the beach when it reopens. But the reunion doesn’t go as he or Robot had hoped, with the final act taking you on an intense ride – one that even the grittiest viewers won’t be able to resist. It is a melancholic denouement, but undeniably authentic. Sometimes we drift and lose touch with the people we love. It is a natural phenomenon that no human can avoid. But the affection remains steadfast and returns when you see that old friend again. Berger and Varon don’t make it that simple, but nothing about this film – which has such a grasp on the human condition – is simple. Robot dreams will cradle your heart before it breaks, only to stitch it back together again, a little scarred but still functioning. Watch it with a friend who would treat yours with the same care.

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