THE STORY – Dog is a lonely dog who lives in Manhattan. One day he decides to build himself a robot, a friend. Their friendship grows, until they become inseparable, to the rhythm of New York in the 80s. One summer night, Dog with great sorrow, is forced to abandon Robot on the beach. Will they meet again?
THE CAST – N/A
THE TEAM – Pablo Berger (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 102 Minutes
The best silent films can be a rollercoaster of emotions. Without dialogue, silent films can capture joy, sadness, love, and heartbreak – all through action and facial expression. Conveying the depths of human emotion without words is no easy feat. It’s a bit of a lost art in the 21st century. “Robot Dreams” manages to accomplish all that without human characters or even human voice actors. This charming animated feature from filmmaker Pablo Berger tells a story of friendship, heartache, and love, making it the most surprising animated film of the year.
Lovely, comic-like animation brings 1980s New York City to life, except in “Robot Dreams,” the city is only occupied with animals walking around on two feet. The lead character is a dog named, well, Dog. Like many throughout big cities, Dog is lonely. He spends his days heating microwave dinners, playing Pong, and watching TV all by his lonesome. Looking out across the city, Dog sees couples through windows and longs for a companion of his own. One day, he sees a commercial for a mail-order robot, which promises to be the friend Dog is looking for. And that’s exactly what Robot is. Once Dog builds Robot, the pair bond over walks throughout the city, eating hotdogs and taking in the sights. They even rollerskate through Central Park to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” which becomes the film’s musical theme. Their days are full of joy together, enjoying each other’s company just as Dog dreamed they would. They hold hands throughout much of their time, at least once Robot learns not to squeeze so tight. Is it a friendship or something more? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, companionship doesn’t need a name.
Adapted by Berger and Sara Varon from her graphic novel of the same name, the animation is beautifully simple. The lines are clear, and the colors are bright, but the world is full of detail. There’s depth to each shot, ensuring this version of New York City never feels flat. Not only that, but the visual gags are wonderfully executed. Robot catches “The Wizard of Oz” on TV and dreams of himself as the Tin Man heading to the Emerald City, complete with sunflowers dancing alongside him in a Buzby Berkeley-style musical number.
“Robot Dreams” takes a distinctly more melancholic turn when Dog and Robot visit the beach. They have a delightful day playing in the water and laying out on the sand. After falling asleep, the pair wake up after sunset and realize something horrible: Robot has rusted up. He can’t move an inch, and Dog can’t move him either. Dog runs home to rest and get tools to fix Robot but returns to find the beach closed with no way inside. He has no choice but to move on and hope Robot is okay.
This sounds tragic and feels that way initially, but this soon becomes a story of lost connection rather than broken hearts. Friendships end, and people drift apart, even when both parties give their best effort. While most friendships don’t end because one person is frozen on a beach, “Robot Dreams” speaks to the wistful experience of moving on, finding new connections, and leaving a piece of your heart with someone else. Remarkably, the movie is able to remain light and charming despite this sad turn.
“Robot Dreams” is a unique find. Its heart is fully on display from beginning to end. While the narrative struggles to sustain a full 90 minutes, there’s enough to ruminate on that makes it worthwhile. Kids may struggle with its more subtle emotion, while some adults may find it too slight. For those open to a more contemplative film that’s not afraid to be silly, “Robot Dreams” is a rewarding animated experience.