Robot Dreams


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Robot Dreams
"A well told tale, funny and poignant and more emotionally complex than it initially appears."

The 2023-24 film year was a strong one for animation. It is perhaps the toughest category in the end-of-year awards, and so it was rather delightful to see Pablo Berger’s Robot Dreams – a simple 2D piece of work shorn of special effects or similar wizardry, and equally modest in its storytelling – secure an Oscar nomination. There is recognition, there, of the fact that a good animated film isn’t simply about technique – successful or otherwise – but is about how that technique is employed. It may not wow you like its competitors, but the chances are that it will stay with you for longer.

There are two principle characters: Dog, who is a dog (and whose mailbox is labelled ‘Varon’, which is both the Spanish for ‘male’ and an allusion to Sara Varon, the graphic novel creator on whose work this is based); and Robot, who is a robot. The film begins with Dog alone, his life an endless cycle of going to work and coming home to eat microwaved food in front of the TV in his East Village apartment. Then, one day, he sees an advert on the TV for a robot friend (some viewers will be reminded of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and ‘your plastic pal who’s fun to be with’). On impulse, he sends off for a kit, and from the moment the power is switched on, Robot is gazing up at him with an adoration which never fades.

Copy picture

Berger explores this new-found love through the visual language of romcoms, though the relationship is, as far as we can tell, a platonic one. Critics have positioned it on different side of a line between friendship and romance, but it might be truer to say that the two protagonists live in a world like that of children on the brink of adolescence, when such lines don’t really exist. What matters is that they are the most important people in the world to each other, and suddenly the Eighties New York City landscape through which Dog has trudged every day bursts into life, full of enchanting things to see and do. None of these things are unusual. As Berger and Varon well know, it’s the company in which they are experienced that will make them the stuff of the sweetest memories.

And memories they will become, because as surely as Dog found Robot, Dog loses Robot. An accident on a Coney Island beach of the kind that flows easily from love’s carelessness sees Dog forced to return to his melancholy isolation, whilst Robot is left to dream. Each holds out hope of restoring what they had, Dog trying over and over again to remedy the situation whilst Robot dreams of endless reunions. These latter become somewhat repetitive – the film’s only real weak spot – but in doing so, they are making a point.

To say much about what actually happens beyond this point would be to spoil the story, but what really makes the film stand out is its unexpected ending, which plays once more with romcom formula only to break it and opt for something more mature. There’s a melancholy beauty about it which invites us to find joy in the past without compromising on life’s ongoing possibilities.

The film is suitable for viewers of all ages, provided that they have the patience to accept its gentle pace. The ending may confuse and upset some children because it doesn’t deliver what they’re used to, but if properly talked through, it has important lessons to teach, and it’s quite possible to look at it in a positive light. Along the way, there’s lots of wonderful visual humour (the film has no dialogue but communicates well without it). New Yorkers will get additional pleasure from the playfully nostalgic representation of their home, but it’s unlikely that anyone will go away disappointed.

A well told tale, funny and poignant and more emotionally complex than it initially appears, Robot Dreams is a charming piece of work which stands proudly amongst the year’s animation highlights, simple as it is.

Reviewed on: 10 Feb 2024
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Robot Dreams packshot
A lonely dog decides to build himself a robot friend.

Director: Pablo Berger

Writer: Pablo Berger, Sara Varon

Year: 2023

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: Spain


London 2023

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