4 out of 5 stars

Robot Dreams’ congenial ambience sneaks up on your emotional fibers insidiously, finds a warm place and lingers in there, pulls one string tight while releasing another into quivers. It slowly works on you the way very few Hollywood animations do, and it paces like it’s fading into the horizon after a precipitous break of dawn. Adapted from the namesake Sara Varon comic-book from 2007, Pablo Berger wrote and directed handsomely, but the banality in the atmosphere that often lends this picture a grounded grace, also sometimes verges on a kind of harmless blandness.

Set in the 1980s, the film is a pipe-dream, nostalgic vision of New York City, rendered in the crisp, incandescent, fine-lined texture of ligne claire, and populated with animals that can walk. A Dog purchases a Robot for companionship and spends the summer in blissful joy, travelling, sharing experiences, eating together, and playing throughout the city. However, when Robot rusts after being soaked in seawater on the beach, Dog has no choice but to leave him there until the beach reopens next summer, when he will come back and fix him. While waiting, they dreamt of meeting again, dreaded at the possibility of the other finding a new soulmate in their replacement, and contemplated moving on from their relationship.

Those who’ve experienced loneliness and long-distance relationships can attest to the emotional appeal of this wordless film. For all the material things in life that appeal to our senses, they’re really all that they are, and the excitement wears out fast. It’s only when they become the junction by which you and somebody else is emotionally connected that you finally sense a personal meaning in them, whether it’s swallowing the hot dogs bought off a vendor at Central Park, or grooving and roller-shuffling to the “ba-dee-yas” of Earth, Wind & Fire. And when the elation of sharing is robbed from you from separation, you’re forced to endure a painful withdrawal from the loss, and the uncertainty of your futures, of your emotional outlets, of someone to care for.

Though its linear and scenic arrangements were a little too crisp and measured, taking away some of the unrefined, childlike charms of the picture book, the film instead endears us with an adultescent affect that grew out of the cuteness and naivety. This might explain why there were so few children among the audience with me at the only AMC in all of Manhattan where it played. This young-at-heart sensibility is what hampered the juvenile enchantments from coming across as purely and authentically as they did in the book: it’s too self-conscious to hit the raw and unworldly tone that gave the children’s social lives and dynamisms in The Florida Project (2017) and Petite Maman (2021) such silly sweetness. Dog’s longing for the Robot’s friendship, which is initially nothing more than an analogy for children’s desires to be accepted by someone as a friend, now comes with the unnecessary baggage of adults’ urge to escape loneliness. And on Halloween, when Dog gets upset at the children in Robot costumes who come to his door for trick-or-treating, it’s not really a kid’s silly frustration at a prank that we responded to, but our own fear of isolation, insecurity, and guilt.

Berger, who drew from his own experiences living in NYC for college, has projected too much of himself onto a source material that’s meant to appeal mostly to little youngsters. In doing so, he’s made the heartfelt quality of this adaptation jarring and incongruous. Dog’s characterisation—insecure, yet socially needy, the underdog in group interactions—are also Berger’s self-reflections. When he crawls up on the immobilised Robot in an awkward position and moves suggestively to help the latter get back on his feet, the attempt at double entendre slapstick fell out of place with the simultaneous sincere tone. And there’s no fireworks in the humour. Berger’s sense of comedic timing is too civil and polite for the whimsical playfulness it’s clearly going for, and the gags, such as Dog’s fumbling in the bowling alley (a familiar adult comedy setting), are somewhat sterile, which can be confusing as the trailers were far more jazzy.

The film, aged up in its sensibility compared to the book, was unwilling to age with it emotionally. Like the book, the beginning overdosed on a childish emotional simplicity. It worked out in the context of a children’s book, but here it made Dog and Robot’s attempts to reunite feel somewhat unwarranted, as their time together is largely skimmed over in a montage. You can see that Robot means something special to Dog, and vice versa, but you struggled to feel it. It misses the mark by a heartstring.

Warning: the following contains spoilers, so only continue after seeing it.

However, Berger’s input is also what entrenched that depth of feeling that the original material simply sketched out. Varon’s comic book had two themes which were faithfully translated to the film: the fleeting nature of friendships and the need to move on from the past. What Berger brought to Varon’s material made her ethos all the more evocative; he made every turn of events count. After being stranded, Robot takes pride in having been able to care for a bird who built a nest in his arm for her hatchlings. When the youngest chick struggled to fly properly and helplessly looked to Robot, he thought up his lips, curling them up and down, to mimic the bird’s flapping wings, demonstrating the synchronous movements needed for flight. After she learned her lesson—by soaring into the stratosphere and then falling back down into the sand—and was ready to explore the world with her mother and siblings, she embraced Robot with her tiny wings, refusing to let go. It’s a sweet touch of physical humour, which also foreshadowed and contextualized the ending.

We also felt the poignancy of his existential pain when, after being discovered and sold to the scrapyard, he was flung onto the heap by Alligator father and son, who cuddled lovingly and stepped away as he was dismembered and slowly shut down. There was no easy moralisation here, even as we were disturbed and indignant. After so many dream sequences, we were almost pining for a reveal which had stolen our hopes away previously to protect our feelings here, but the film doesn’t give it to us. Little children will be more than haunted. And towards the end, when Robot was finally given the chance to reunite with his old friend, the film re-stages the dramatic contrivance used for the bittersweet endings of the romantic tragedies of the 30s and 40s, and doesn’t get mired down in the mawkishness. Instead, it rejoices and cherishes their memories together, letting the “ba-du-das” take them away. It’s delicate how it embraces its emotional naivety that one could’ve wished it was more shameless in its childishness.

SPAIN • FRANCE | 2023 | 102 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | SPANISH

frame rated divider neon

Cast & Crew

director: Pablo Berger.
writer: Pablo Berger (based on the comic-book by Sara Varon).