Credit: Arcadia Motion Pictures/Neon
by Andrew Reichel Featured Film Horizon Line

Robot Dreams — Pablo Berger

May 31, 2024

One of the more adorable touches in Pablo Berger’s animated film Robot Dreams comes early on, when our lonely dog protagonist’s apartment is revealed to have a poster for Pierre Etaix’s classic 1965 comedy Yoyo. It’s a fitting reference for a film enamored with silent comedy stylistics that wants to bring them to a different time period: our dog (named “Dog” for maximum convenience) and the robot (“Robot”) who becomes his best friend never actually talk, and the film is set in a version of 1980s New York City populated largely by animals. Berger’s only other film to have made a splash prior to this, Blancanieves, also utilized silent film pastiche to bring the classic Snow White story to Spain’s bullfighting scene. It’s perhaps too early in his career to say whether an interest in avoiding words will be a recurring approach in the director’s work (or whether he will continue working in animation), but he does allow himself a little cameo: Robot arrives in a box from Berger Co.

Thinking too hard about the logistics of how anthropomorphization works in this kid-friendly universe feels a bit pedantic: in this version of our world populated entirely by animals, what does Yoyo actually look like? Are the pigeons intelligent beings? Questioning why this story is set in 1980s NYC also feels somewhat pedantic, but more worthy of sustained thought. There are a few time-specific references like Tab and Pong, and a general summer-in-NYC mood is charmingly cartoonified with a pleasantly surprising amount of fun detail, but the general ambience isn’t too unfamiliar. Earth Wind & Fire’s September is used recurringly: not a very bold needle drop and one that came out a little too early to be time-appropriate, but the film at least commits to it. The TV show Bojack Horseman’s approach to its background jokes allowed for a universe that genuinely seemed like it was thinking about these types of questions, and one wishes Robot Dreams had been able to translate that type of wit to something child-appropriate rather than just relying on cute animal character designs.

The movie’s conflict comes when, after a nice day at Coney Island, Robot rusts and gets stuck in place, Dog can’t move him, and a fence conveniently goes up to block off the beach until next summer. Another film to receive homage in Robot Dreams is The Wizard of Oz, which didn’t bother with the question of how difficult it must have been for the Tin Woodsman to get stuck in place: this makes that the entire conflict. Avoiding dialogue winds up being the film’s Achilles heel when it can’t justify Dog abandoning his friend to go home for the night beyond a seeming inability to properly communicate: pay phones are shown as being cut off and non-functional, and while Coney Island after dark isn’t necessarily the best place to have an emergency of this kind, surely a sympathetic emergency worker or resident to help him out could have been found? There’s a sequence where a bureaucrat denies Dog access to the beach that feels rather unwarrantedly sour for choosing to dodge conversational nuance altogether. (Much truer to life: a police officer who sees him trespassing and doesn’t bother waiting for an explanation is depicted as a dumb, whistle-blowing ape.)

102 minutes is probably too long for the melancholic mood Robot Dreams settles into after this. Robot spends his time on the beach hallucinating like a solitary confinement prisoner while his body gets utilized for scrap parts or a bird nest, raising too many questions about just how robots and small birds are seen in this world that the film isn’t too interested in answering. (There’s a reason no one has ever done an extended sequence of C3PO from Star Wars having a limb hacked off and used to plug a hole.) Dog goes back to being lonely, and while it’s poignant, there’s only so many times you can watch him fail at socializing or fantasize about reuniting with his friend. (There’s also the oddness of him going fishing.) He’s not surrounded by a very charitable set of New Yorkers: two anteaters sociopathically make him crash his bobsled and break an arm for kicks, and his attempts at bowling get laughed at. Instead, it’s in a sort of understated silliness where the film tends to shine more: Robot hallucinating The Wizard of Oz turns into a Busby Berkeley number; a snowman uses his body to go bowling; and the robot’s thin line of a mouth becomes like a little miniature instructional graphic for a bird learning to fly.

Robot Dreams ultimately becomes about losing a friendship and hopefully moving on, which it handles fairly tastefully: Dog and Robot are eventually able to make new friends despite a few attempts with other parties that don’t work out, and a sad little near-miss at the end where they could have potentially reconnected. The comic-panel style of the visuals allows for a split screen panel where they can be together one last time: appropriate, good for kids learning about movies and the world, and ultimately not too surprising. If it paves the way for some children to learn about silent comedy and other forms of cinematic possibilities, then it would be hard to resent something as well-meaning and amiable as Robot Dreams, but most adults may find themselves wishing for something that aims for a higher mark than sweet geniality.

DIRECTOR: Pablo Berger;  DISTRIBUTOR: NEON;  IN THEATERS: May 31;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 42 min.