Robot Dreams: Exquisite and sophisticated animated movie for adults

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Robot Dreams is in cinemas on April 11.
Robot Dreams is in cinemas on April 11. Credit: Madman Films

It’s so rare to find an animated film with restraint and grace.

The Oscar-nominated Robot Dreams is anathema to the cacophonous and over-stuffed kids movies to which too many adults are dragged by their offspring, beaten into submission by quacking ducks and singing trolls.

Pixar still makes gorgeous, humanist stories while the Studio Ghibli offerings continue to excite and delight. But Robot Dreams is something entirely different, it cleverly gives the impression it’s not trying to impose anything on you, as if it’s a pleasant amble. Robot Dreams will never be turned into a theme park ride.

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The tender story about friendship and companionship is really more for adults who appreciate whimsy and charm than kids who need loud noises and fast editing.

Directed by Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger, Robot Dreams is set in 1980s New York – the Twin Towers stand tall in the backdrop and the city still has a slight grime to it. Here, its citizens are anthropomorphic animals including Dog, who lives by himself on the Lower East Side.

Robot Dreams in cinemas on April 11.
New York City comes alive in Robot Dreams. Credit: Madman Films

Watching TV one night, Dog sees an ad for a robot friend, who arrives not long after in the mail. They go out and do all the New York things – a hot dog in Central Park from a blue-and-yellow Sabrett’s cart and sitting on a bench beneath Manhattan Bridge.

In this recognisable cosmopolis of brick mobile phones, ghetto blasters and rollerskaters, Dog and Robot form a friendship. But a trip to the seashore goes awry when Robot is rusted after a day frolicking in the water. He can’t move and Dog can’t move him.

When Dog returns the next day with a repair kit, the beach is closed and barricaded, and won’t reopen for nine months.

That’s the conflict at the heart of Robot Dreams. While apart, Dog tries to go about his life as much as possible until June 1, the date the beach reopens. But Robot is stuck on that beach as the seasons change. He dreams, not of electric sheep but of Dog.

There’s a melancholy to Robot Dreams, a sweetness tinged with sadness as it tells the story of friends torn asunder, and the very real connection formed between two beings – one a sentient machine. The film does not directly play into conversations about AI as other movies (Ex Machina, Blade Runner, Her, A.I. and I, Robot) have but it stealthily asks “what’s the difference?”

Robot Dreams in cinemas on April 11.
Robot Dreams is from Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger. Credit: Madman Films

Robot not only feels joy and sadness, and is curious and playful, he also mourns and hopes. It’s how he thinks and dreams about the future, his desires and fears that suggests a consciousness beyond mere mechanics. Robot needs companionship as much as Dog does.

With no dialogue and a beautiful score by Alfonso de Vilallonga, it evokes the traditions of Buster Keaton (including a visual gag that’s a direct reference), Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati.

Its world is lively and packed with little details of a New York where animals are living full lives – in that sense, there’s a touch of those Richard Scarry Busytown books you might’ve pored over as a kid.

This exquisite and emotionally sophisticated film might not be for the youngest of kids but for everyone else, it offers an enchanting experience not easily forgotten.

Rating: 4.5/5

Robot Dreams is in cinemas on April 11

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