Funny, Touching & A Reason To Rethink How We Talk About Animation


  • Robot Dreams is grounded in reality and filled with thematic richness.
  • The film provides emotional and nuanced storytelling.
  • The animation is an all-ages piece of entertainment promoting empathy.

I’ve never understood the bias some have against animation, but watching Robot Dreams, it occurred to me that the language used to defend it has also done it a disservice. When forced to focus on what animation can do that live-action filmmaking cannot, we naturally emphasize fantastical, stylized movies with big imaginations that take us to new places. This is a worthy vein to pursue, and many of my favorite animated films fit this mold. But, to paraphrase Guillermo del Toro, it might be as unfair a pigeonhole for this medium as calling it a “genre for kids.”

Robot Dreams is an animated comedy-drama film by writer-director Pablo Berger, featuring no voice acting. The film follows a dog living alone in New York City who decides to build a robot friend in the 1980s, setting the two on various heartfelt adventures in Manhattan together.


  • Joyfully and cleverly animated
  • Emotionally intelligent and involving
  • Storytelling is so clear, it doesn’t need dialogue
  • Immersive worldbuilding through a textured soundscape

Robot Dreams has fantasy sequences, and given that its characters are anthropomorphized animals and machines, a certain unreality. But those descriptors belie the groundedness that, for me, is its defining characteristic. When I think of recent movies it reminds me of, I think first of Past Lives. I’m inclined to celebrate it for doing not what is unique to animation, but what is unique to cinema, to the moving image. It should come as no surprise that del Toro is among those whose words of praise are quoted in the trailer.

Robot Dreams Is Nuanced Without Needing To Be Complicated

It’s way more grounded in reality than you might expect

Writer-director Pablo Berger, adapting the graphic novel of the same name by Sara Varon, lets simplicity be the path to nuance. Dog, in a world seemingly defined by pairs, lives alone in a 1980s New York apartment. He sees an ad for a robot friend on TV one night, orders it, puts it together, and instantly has someone he can share his life with. Over the course of a summer, Dog and Robot become inseparable; as a result of their particularly joyous time roller skating in Central Park, “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire becomes their song.

One day, the two go to the beach. They swim, have fun, and fall asleep on their towels in the sand. When they wake later that evening, Robot can no longer move, and his metal body is far too heavy for Dog to carry. He has no choice but to leave, intending to return with the tools to repair him the next day. But when he does, he finds the beach is closed until next summer, his immobile friend stuck behind a locked, barbed-wire fence. Dog’s attempts at access, both legal and illegal, are stymied. He can only wait until June.

The characters are animated with such clarity of expression, and the film is edited so expertly, that lines just aren’t necessary.

The straightforwardness of this set-up is essential for what Berger does next. We’re already firmly attached to Dog and Robot’s friendship by this point, and from the moment they’re separated, what comes next is easy to envision. Events conspire to keep them apart, so the rest of the movie must be about their drive to reunite, right? But Dog’s realization that he must wait months to save his friend, and his acceptance of that reality, signals to us that the filmmakers aren’t so interested in treating this story like a quest.

Robot Dreams is much more interested in real life, where people separated by fate can’t spend every waking moment in the act of reuniting. They continue to live through their time apart. For Dog, that means going back to trying to address the loneliness in his life, to make new friends or maybe start a relationship. For Robot, who is still new to the world (and cannot move), that means dreaming, coming to understand new fears and desires, and learning from every chance interaction.

Robot Dreams Makes For Joyful, All-Audience Viewing

The colorful art style isn’t a misdirect


  • Grounded in reality, yet imaginative
  • Emotional and nuanced storytelling
  • All-ages entertainment that fosters empathy

If I’ve made this sound too much like a meditative drama, that’s only because the emotional themes are so rich — it’s a light, funny, colorful film. Robot’s dreams often lead him into fantasy worlds inspired by classic cinema, from The Wizard of Oz and the musicals of Busby Berkeley to the form-bending comedy of Buster Keaton, but it’s not necessary to catch the references to find these sequences delightful. The movie sports a clever sense of humor, with visual gags that poke fun at the ways animation can bend reality.

I also haven’t mentioned that the movie has no dialogue, but only because, at the risk of cliché, there were long stretches where I forgot that was the case. The characters are animated with such clarity of expression, and the film is edited so expertly, that lines just aren’t necessary. And aside from “September,” a motif that becomes our emotional anchor, the movie is filled with sounds and music that give this world its texture. Berger is clearly invested in recreating this era of New York life, and his immersive approach characterizes our relationship with the storytelling as well.

Robot Dreams


Pablo Berger




Pablo Berger
, Sara Varon


102 Minutes

And for those wondering whether something I’ve compared to Past Lives is right for their kids, my answer would be a resounding yes. This is truly all-ages entertainment. I’ll go a step further, even, and say that children should see Robot Dreams. Robot’s journey, which we experience alongside him, is one of emotional maturation, in part by observing and processing how others behave. Much in the way I felt about My Father’s Dragon (though that is aimed more at younger kids), the characters’ emotional lives are calibrated just the right way to help teach empathy, and even illustrate its value.

I was lucky enough to see Robot Dreams in a theater, and if you see it pop up in your area, I wouldn’t wait for it to become available on digital. With the way the story is told, it makes as much use of the big canvas and immersive sound systems as any flashy blockbuster. However you experience it, though, I’m confident it will worm its way into your heart.

Robot Dreams releases in limited theaters on Friday, May 31 before expanding a week later on June 7. The film is 102 minutes and is not currently rated.

Source link

Leave a Reply