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Robot Dreams ★★★★



Released: 22nd March 2024

Director: Pablo Berger

Cast: Ivan Labanda, Albert Trifol Segarra & Rafa Calvo

Musically, is there anything more euphoric than Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘September’? Think about it: that groovy guitar strum. That rhythmic drum beat. Those accompanied finger snaps. Those iconic horns when they kick into gear. Then, it hits you – the band’s lead singer, Maurice White, opens with the most quotable line in music history. When a feel-good song can feel like the most joyous thing ever, celebrated and memed every “21st Night of September” like a National Anthem, it comes as no surprise when it is used as the beating heart of Robot Dreams.

There’s plenty to admire about Pablo Berger’s Oscar-nominated animated film. For one, at the time of its BFI London Film Festival screening last year, 2023 gave us a fantastic year of animation, anything from Hayao Miyasaki’s The Boy and the Heron, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, Netflix’s Nimona, Disney’s Elemental and Wish, and who can forget, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. When animation serves to break boundaries through ambitious storytelling and experimental artistic styles, the medium is more than just an ‘outlet for kids’. It’s an expressive form of art – a drum that continuously needs to be beaten. Secondly, how it sets the tone for its heartfelt animated adventure between Dog and Robot (both voiced by Ivan Labanda) and builds it around something unquestionably human. 

Part of the charm Dreams imbues is that it’s not a space-aged story set in a distant galactic future but set in Manhattan, New York during the 1980s. Based on the graphic novel by Sara Varon, there are no humans. Animals roam the Earth (think Disney’s Zootopia), immersed in a grounded throwback of the decade. Soon enough, the nostalgia floodgates open, anything from the birth of hip-hop music, the punk rock evolution (including a hilarious scene where Robot ‘flips the bird’ at the crew), VHS tapes, MTV, and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Building once again dominating New York’s skyline. Impressively, Dreams uses little to no dialogue to communicate its worldview, nor does Berger and co. explain why animals and robots cohabit together in this analogue alt-universe. Therefore, don’t expect Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics! But it almost doesn’t matter when its intention is coming from a simple yet desperate yearning for meaningful connections. It speaks volumes of how individuals can feel the weight of isolation and alienation in the big city, enough motivation that would compel a tired, lonely dog to order an Amica 2000 Robot after seeing a commercial on TV. As the story kicks into gear, it immediately pulls on the heartstrings. 

Throughout the first act, Berger dials up the warmth and whimsy, comforting you in the sweet sounds of Earth, Wind & Fire, and Alfonso de Vilallonga’s score as Dog and Robot’s inseparable companionship grows in a delightful scenic montage around the city. The animation – a brightly-coloured 2D tapestry of beauty and simplicity – is wholesome and cute, and the adoring love that permeates every frame boils down to its easy-to-follow narrative. For a story not consumed with the frequent ‘doom and gloom’ tropes of robot dominance and destruction (e.g. Skynet in the Terminator franchise), this is a refreshing slice of animated heaven.

Like all storytelling conventions, this mood doesn’t last long. On a trip to the beach towards the tail-end of the summer, Robot is isolated on the beach (due to water and mechanical rust), forcing an inconsolable Dog to leave its friend behind. With the beach closed until next summer before Dog can retrieve its friend, it is at this point that the plot goes a little south.

If there was a strong desire for a film to be shorter, Dreams would fit the remit. That’s not to say what happens is not in tune with the rest of the story, where fears of abandonment, separation, grief and loss are placed centre stage for Dog and Robot. Creatively – as if submitting the answer to Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” – Berger and the team opt for dream-like experimentation where Robot dreams of The Wizard of Oz and musical numbers are performed by flowers. Dog explores new life experiences (such as skiing, bowling and kite flying), only to be left disappointed by the insensitive animal companions around him (and to my frustrated cries of “Please hire a boat and get your robot!”). A lot of its ambitious moments are life-affirming, particularly Robot’s growth as it reconciles with the meaning of life whilst trapped on the beach. However, the obvious messaging goes on a little longer than it should, especially when repeating the same narrative motifs.

At least it regains its momentum by going back to the tenderness as exhibited in its first half. Like a page ripped out of Celine Song’s Past Lives, it builds on the paralleled notion of love and loss, memories of the old and new, dreams versus hopelessness, and how we redefine our identity after heartbreak. I love there are no quick fixes here, using the analogue period setting to amplify feelings of disconnection. For a film to accomplish that essence with such poetic potency is so intrinsically human.

Robot Dreams is not quite the masterpiece it aims for, but it captivates your heart and soul in ways that animation does so intimately well. It’s a stunning piece of work that emotionally wears its heart on its sleeve and does so with immense joy, wonder and genuine grace.

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