‘Robot Dreams’ Joyfully Dances to the Happiness and Heartbreak of Bonding 

Life can feel so transient. Maybe it was always that way, but these days it is an even more intense feeling as people are constantly on the move because of careers, housing costs or travel fever. When we meet someone new and click, there is that inherent fear of not knowing how long it might last. These are not the usual ideas we are meant to ponder during an animated film, yet “Robot Dreams” conjures them in a wonderfully simple, deep fashion. Spanish director Pablo Berger is a gifted artist who can communicate wholly through images. This is essentially a silent film, which was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. With no spoken dialogue, everything is said through action. The world has sound in this gem, but its most powerful emotions do not need to be spoken.

“Robot Dreams” begins with loneliness in New York’s East Village sometime in the 1980s. Dog, who is literally a dog, is sitting in his apartment alone eating microwave dinners in front of the TV. An ad appears for an Amica 2000, a build it yourself robot companion. Without hesitation Dog places an order and soon enough, a big box is delivered to his doorstep. His new buddy is Robot, a wide-eyed walking machine who marvels at the bustling world around the city. The pair go out to explore New York City, including Central Park, Chinatown, the subway, hot dog stands, and then Coney Island. “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire becomes their summer soundtrack. But when Robot joins Dog for a swim in the Atlantic, his body suddenly can’t move when he lies back down on a towel. Desperate to save his friend, Dog runs off to find help but is blocked from reaching Robot when the beach is closed for the season.

Berger is a filmmaker intrigued by the melancholic truth of separation and the unpredictability of life. He first gained international renown with his great 2012 film, “Blancanieves.” That was a hypnotic reimagining of the Snow White tale set in Spain, shot with the look and feel of a classic silent film. The twists were truly unexpected and it refused to end in a watered down, Disney-friendly fashion. “Robot Dreams” is a more joyful film but nonetheless uniquely mature in its storytelling. It is also an adaptation, this time taken from a graphic novel by Sara Varon. “I loved the novel the first time I read it,” Berger tells Entertainment Voice. “I thought the end was devastating and it made me think of so many people I loved who were not with me anymore. That part resonated with me as a director and storyteller. I wanted to tell a story about friendship and its fragility, how we overcome loss with the use of memory.”

There is truly wrenching frustration when Dog can’t reach his friend, who he gazes at from beyond a chain link fence. Winter sets in and Dog is forced to carry on with life and its holidays, while Robot lies on the beach, only his eyes moving. Both get lost in dreams fueled by their separation. Dog may have a nightmare about meeting someone new, while Robot hallucinates about being helped or wandering flower fields inspired by “The Wizard of Oz.” Even more tragically, Robot, who even endures being frozen in ice at one point, might wake up to find that the real world remains dangerous even for an incapacitated machine. “Cinema should be a sensorial experience,” says Berger. “This film is like a musical. There’s a lot of visual poetics. I like the idea that the audience arrives and just gets inside the screen and forgets about themselves. When you’re watching the film you don’t have to think, you have to feel.” 

This story’s wonderful allegory can serve as a potent reminder for adult viewers and an enlightening experience for younger ones. It is not a crime to feel lonely and seek companionship. But whether in romance or friendship, life happens and that person can suddenly be gone. As Dog continues to live, the potential arises for making new friends. Some may be just as transient and move away, others might connect with Dog in just as good a way as Robot. Moving on can feel extremely difficult, and then we look back and realize just how many other people we have come across in our life travels. A break up can feel like the end of the world, unless we are willing to open up and try again. “Robot Dreams” achieves that kind of special depth only a few American mainstream animated features have come close to achieving. It is a Neon release but can be ranked with the best kind of arthouse animated films we tend to get from studios like GKids.

Visually, Berger and his team achieve a wonderful, classic look. The world of “Robot Dreams” is inhabited by animals akin to Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman.” There are ‘80s references all around in the music, fashion and small details like Atari and Tab soda. Here it works as something beyond nostalgia. Berger seems to be remembering the past without necessarily missing it. Decades have passed but it is fine to look back. The final scenes of this movie are wonderfully bittersweet. They seem to say that good memories with someone are worth cherishing, even as we may find new loves, friends and connections. One can be extremely lucky to have lifelong bonds or that partnership that truly lasts, yet there is nothing unnatural about the winds of life carrying us somewhere else. Some of us will keep going even when a particular song will briefly transport us back. “Guillermo Del Toro is a big supporter of the film,” adds Berger, “We were talking about how as live-action directors, if you’re impatient, animation becomes addictive. It gives you another palette. You can tell stories you couldn’t tell otherwise.”

Robot Dreams” releases May 31 in select theaters.