By far one of the most delightful films of the year––even when it breaks your heart––Pablo Berger’s Robot Dreams is a deceptively simple take on companionship that uses robots and animals to tell a very human story about friendship and life.
Adapted from Sara Varon’s 2007 graphic novel of the same name, Berger’s lively film respects the form, telling its story without dialogue and instead relying on music and sound effects to drive the story of Dog and Robot forth. Dog spends his life in a sterile East Village apartment, circa the 1980s––eating microwaved meals, playing pong, drinking Tab, and yearning for companionship in the shadow of his YOLO poster. Flipping around the channels, Dog stumbles across an ad for a companion robot and spends the next few days assembling his new friend.
After Robot springs to life as a lively best friend, the two start to have adventures in the big city––spending an ideal summer roller-blading around Central Park, hanging out at home, and meeting the locals to the beat of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” Tragedy strikes when Robot is exposed to water at Coney Island and starts losing basic functions, including its power supply. Dog tries to pull Robot to safety and is forced to abandon the plan altogether as night begins to fall. Thanks to a trip to the Strand Book Store, Dog hatches a plan and heads back to the beach to find it’s too late in September and the beach is closed until June. Multiple attempts to save Robot are unsuccessful; Dog is forced to come to the reality that his friend will be doomed to remain out on the beach, behind a fence, as seasons change.
Taking a turn for the melancholy, Dog tries to get himself back out there by taking a trip to the Catskills, going on a date with a young hen he meets while flying a kite, and wandering around the city while Robot remains exposed to the elements (including self-serving vandals on the beach). While Dog dreams of Robot, Robot also dreams of Dog in a series of hauntingly adorable fantasies, one of which harkens back to the time they watched The Wizard of Oz together.
Robot Dreams is a profoundly human film filled with the richness and heartbreak of life, from the joys of perfect days spent with your best friend to time spent apart as all relationships grow, mature, and morph. Told in hand-drawn animation that is both dynamic and surprisingly detailed about the whereabouts of certain street corners in New York City, Berger’s film is such a joy to behold, building an incredible amount of empathy with our two leads.
With its 1980s setting, the film is also a vibrant celebration of urban life in the Big Apple, including references to Jean-Michel Basquiat and the punk movement of the Lower East Side and SoHo, and traveling to the Upper East Side, Canal Street, and the Iron Triangle in the shadow of old Shea Stadium. Robot Dreams perfectly captures the city block-by-block with a careful attention to detail rarely seen in animation.
With a visual aesthetic that recalls Loren Bouchard’s Apple TV+ series Central Park, screenwriter-director Berger captures something profound by respecting the dialogue-free source material. It’s an ode to how exciting a friendship can be even after it’s gone, how friends––including close ones––flow in and out of your life even after disappointing them. This is not to say the film doesn’t have a happy ending or a homework assignment, but rather that it’s a work that respects its audience both young and old by telling a story that’s universal, relatable, inevitable. Robot Dreams is one of the best films of the year, animated or otherwise.
Robot Dreams screened at the Montclair Film Festival and will be released by NEON.