Oscars 2024: Nostalgia and Sweetness in Robot Dreams

Based on a children’s book by the same name, director Pablo Berger’s dialogue-free film explores life, loneliness and companionship in a big city.
Oscar 2024: Nostalgia and Sweetness in Robot Dreams
Oscar 2024: Nostalgia and Sweetness in Robot Dreams

A lonely dog, who reads Stephen King before going to sleep and has a Pink Floyd poster on their bedroom wall, sees an advertisement on TV for a robot that is programmed to be a friend. They order one for themself. The robot arrives and they’re everything Dog wanted. Robot and Dog walk around East Village, they go roller skating in Central Park, they eat hotdogs, and watch The Wizard of Oz. Unlike the Tin Man in the film, Robot has no existential crisis about his heart. It’s quite obvious Robot loves Dog and Dog loves Robot — which might make you wonder whether this film by Pablo Berger is actually a short. In fact, very little happens in Robot Dreams, but it’s feature-length and it’s full of heart.

The crisis comes early in Robot Dreams. Dog is forced to abandon Robot at the beach when Robot’s battery dies unexpectedly. Dog returns to the beach as soon as they can, but the beach has been closed for winter. There’s nothing to do but wait for the beach to reopen in a few months. While Robot dreams of getting up and walking home, Dog goes month to month — Halloween is particularly funny and also poignant — missing Robot. Add some rabbits inclined towards vandalism, a violent alligator and a racoon named Rascal, and you have a mellow adventure about two friends who lose one another despite the best of intentions. 

 Based on Sara Varon’s beautiful graphic novel for children, Robot Dreams is a simple story of love found, lost and regained, and an ode to New York City. While there are incidents and plot twists, the film is really more about a vintage vibe that feels like a love letter to this city that has inspired so many dreamers. The twin towers, shrouded in haze, are visible in some frames, clueing the viewer into a bygone era and Dog is the ultimate hipster New Yorker. The city looks like it has in its most classic imagery, only now it is literally a concrete jungle because Robot Dreams replaces people with animals of various species. There are grumpy bulls, friendly geese, brutish alligators, cruel rabbits, inventive racoons, and pigeons who curiously snoop through windows. 

As remarkable as the gorgeous artwork and animation style is how cleverly director Pablo Berger builds characters without using a single line of dialogue. Dog is quite literally dogged in their determination to not be consumed by sadness, and that optimism is shown using details (like the cuteness of Dog sitting on a bench, surrounded by still and steady lines, while his little tail wags happily). Berger makes use of perspective, background score, rhythm and the neatest of linework to convey a wealth of emotion. Even if it was originally written for children, this is a story that taps into anxieties about being alone, loss and moving on that cut across age barriers. Although the film struggles with its momentum and feels almost too simple in parts, there’s a sweetness to Robot Dreams that makes it well worth a watch.  

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