ROBOT DREAMS

★★★★★

AN EFFORTLESSLY BEAUTIFUL AND DEEPLY HEARTFELT ANIMATED CLASSIC

THEATRICAL REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
27th March 2024

Manhattan in 1984. Dog lives in an apartment on his own. Outside his window, he sees other animals, all in families and couples and friendship groups going about their day. But Dog doesn't have anyone. He's lonely, quietly lonely. One night while watching TV, he sees an infomercial that might solve all his problems. A few days later a box arrives, and after hours of complicated assembly, Dog has constructed Robot. From the moment Robot wakes up and looks at Dog, the two become the best of friends.

This is the very simple setup that opens 'Robot Dreams', Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger's animated adaptation of Sara Baron's 2007 comic of the same name. And you would be forgiven for assuming, in the opening minutes of the film, that you'll just be in for a charming yet slight affair. Compared to the lush romanticism of 'The Boy and the Heron' or the unrelenting visual bombast of 'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse', 'Robot Dreams' looks modest: block colours and simple lines against flat backgrounds. The world of the film - a Manhattan populated by animals - rests on the conceit that anything is possible in animation, with little need to explain itself. And with the dramatic action of this opening, it seems like this will be a simple story of friendship, made to tickle the funny bone and warm the heart.

Hidden within these opening minutes though are the clues that 'Robot Dreams' may be more than it appears. The animation might appear simple, but that simplicity gives room for astonishing attention to detail. It isn't just about how these characters and this world looks, it's about how these characters move within this world. As we watch Dog wander around his apartment and begin to construct Robot, we witness an endless series of well-considered micro-movements, tiny character idiosyncrasies. Dog never says a word - in fact, not a single word is spoken in the entirety of 'Robot Dreams' - and yet we already know so much about him, from his tiny reactions and his subconscious choices, all of which (by virtue of being an animated film) an artist has also considered right down to the tiniest detail. You also begin to see the film's cracking wit, its sharp editing, its on-point humour, its playful use of music. You might take the film's simplicity for granted, but very quickly it becomes obvious that something is really happening here. Where most animated films these days go for excess, for sound and energy, like a visually-manifested sugar rush, 'Robot Dreams' takes its time, draws you in. I found myself within minutes leaning forward in my seat. There was thought, real thought being put into this. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck, very gently, start to stand on end.

And then Robot looks at Dog. And smiles. And like watching the first breaking of light as the sun rises, my eyes filled with awe, my breath caught and I knew I was in for something truly, truly special.

SWITCH: 'ROBOT DREAMS' TRAILER

To go into detail about the narrative machinations of 'Robot Dreams' would be to ruin its infinite surprises. This is one of those films where to know as little as possible works so much in its favour, allowing you to ride its unexpected and shattering emotional rollercoaster. Those principles of simplicity, attention to detail and giving the characters and story space to breathe radiate through the entire film, bringing moments of joy and sadness the likes of which few animated film outside of the works of Hayao Miyazaki have been able to achieve in years. As each minute passed, as each set piece morphed into the next, as each of the titular dreams revealed more about the hopes and fears of these two characters, as the visual and aural and emotional world of the film continued to expand, I could barely contain myself.

If you're intrigued enough to see the film, stop here and go see it now. If you aren't convinced though and want to know more, read on.

Very soon into 'Robot Dreams', Dog and Robot are met with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, one that reverberates through the rest of the film. After establishing the purity and joy of their relationship (is it just friendship? Is it more than that? Does it matter?), our two protagonists are separated, but rather than the film being about their attempts to reunite, it becomes a story of coping with the loss of someone you deeply care about. This might sound like the kind of ground many animated films have covered before (especially the more manipulative efforts of Pixar), but this is not loss through death but loss through separation. Both Dog and Robot still exist in the world, but they can't exist in the world together at this time.

This is a very particular kind of loss, and one that doesn't feel as often explored in animation. When it is, it often resorts to emotional histrionics, but there's nothing melodramatic about the central tension in 'Robot Dreams'. In fact, that simplicity, attention to detail and breathing space woven into the opening minutes of the film lay the groundwork for the film's persistent emotional integrity. With these modest yet empathetic drawings moving across the screen, the film is able to discuss this sense of loss and longing, that feeling of displacement and terror, that pervading sense of being unmoored because you have lost your anchor in the world, with more maturity, insight and humanity than I've ever seen in any other film, and certainly as astutely as Celine Song's radiant 'Past Lives'. Your heart breaks and soars over and over again in this film, but so gently and with such care.

As a consequence of its conceit, 'Robot Dreams' doesn't adhere to a traditional narrative structure. As the title suggests, it is constructed partly through a series of dream sequences, each as imaginative as the last and each built to further expand the inner emotional lives of both Dog and Robot. The risk is that the film would feel episodic, but Berger and his team are careful to make sure that the segments of the film feel emotionally linked, using a conscious awareness of the passage of time to give the film a sense of tension. Even when the structure starts to become familiar, it finds ways to offer variation within the repetition, using each one to amplify rather than repeat. The other advantage is that each sequence is so beautifully self-contained, whether it be as a raucous moment of comedy, a burst of musical imagination, a gentle contemplation or even a sudden shock of emotional violence. You are propelled from one to the next, both by the film's carefully calibrated rhythms and your total investment in these characters. In many ways, the apparent visual and aural simplicity of the film gives it greater scope to be this playful and daring.

Because of the challenge of not having any dialogue, the film needs to communicate so much through body language and behaviour, and does so with startling clarity. It’s the kind of storytelling language that makes it accessible to a viewer of any age, and what you take away from it depends on your personal experiences.

This extends out to the world of the film, populated by animals of all species and sizes. Where a film like 'Zootopia' might go to some lengths to explain how this world works, 'Robot Dreams' rightly assumes that, because this is a work of animation, we're more likely to just accept it, and if it chooses not to offer any kind of explanation, then there's no explanation for us to pick apart. The choices of where different animals exist within Manhattan, what hobbies they have and what jobs they do, all of it has been thought through with the same attention to detail afforded Dog and Robot. As a result, and combined with the 80s aesthetic, the Manhattan of 'Robot Dreams' feels constantly alive, shimmering with life, bursting with detail. At 102 minutes, it's on the longer end of an animated film, and with the time it takes, you certainly feel its length, but this is never a bad thing. It always feels like there are more stories, more lives just around the corner, that everyone Dog or Robot encounter has a full life of their own. Nothing is wasted, nothing is arbitrary, everything feels essential. You could sit in it all for hours.

The film is also careful to circumnavigate any easy metaphors. Much like 'Luca', 'Robot Dreams' feels like it speaks to many different kinds of relationships and identities, and the visual simplicity coupled with its lack of dialogue makes it a very easy film to access and then see yourself in. What is important is the purity of the emotional relationships in the film, not just Robot and Dog together but with the many others they encounter. This accessibility means it may be the rare example of a cross-generational animated film that exists without the need for up-to-date pop cultural references. Because of the challenge of not having any dialogue, the film needs to communicate so much through body language and behaviour, and does so with startling clarity. It's the kind of storytelling language that makes it accessible to a viewer of any age, and what you take away from it depends on your personal experiences. For a little kid, they might see Dog and Robot as their best friend at school. For an adult, it may speak to that precious moment when you found the love of your life and then had to find a way to live without them. In innumerable ways, 'Robot Dreams' reminded me of the films of Disney's Golden Age, films like 'Pinocchio' or 'Dumbo' or 'Bambi', films working with an emotional integrity manifested in a gentle, simple narrative - the kinds of films that defy notions of a target audience and dig right to the heart of what makes animation such a potent, powerful medium.

The rambunctious humour and gentle energy of 'Robot Dreams' catch you in its whirlwind, but in its final act, you can sense it moving towards some sort of reckoning. This is where the film goes from being a brilliant, sparkling gem to an overwhelming, jaw-dropping marvel. The final minutes of 'Robot Dreams' are among the most astonishing I've ever seen, certainly for an animated film. As the ending played out, the simplicity and honesty rising to a crescendo of world-shattering beauty, I found I couldn't breathe. I sat there, my mouth agape, my hands to my face, tears streaming, eyes wide with awe. I could feel my heart coming completely undone. Berger and his remarkable team of artists gently bring the film to an ending for the ages, as breathtaking as the final minutes of 'Past Lives', as shattering as the end of 'Aftersun', as inevitable as the ending of 'Casablanca'. And what makes it all the more remarkable is how so well earned it is. For a film as seemingly modest as 'Robot Dreams', its final beats are a thunderstorm in the heart.

If you've read all the way to the end of this review without seeing it first, you have done 'Robot Dreams' a disservice. Too much has already been ruined for you. I sat in my seat knowing very little, foolishly assuming that it would be a charming yet forgettable little fable on an unlikely friendship. What I saw instead was one of the most remarkable animated films I have ever seen. 'Robot Dreams' is a marvel, a gift, a miracle, an ecstatic expression of love found, love lost and love remembered. Even as I write this, those same hairs that gently stood to attention on the back of my neck, all the way up my arms, are alive with electricity. There hasn't been a day since I saw it that I haven't thought of this incredible film, and I doubt there will be a day to come when it won't pass through my mind, bringing me to that exquisite place between a smile and a tear. It's the kind of film you dream of, where the world feels a little brighter, where the heart feels a little fuller, where you are brought gently to the moment of catharsis you so desperate need and left dazzled by the beauty of being alive and being in love with someone who makes your day all that more special. Whose smile you could live in forever. That's what 'Robot Dreams' achieves. That's why 'Robot Dreams' is a masterpiece.

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