Robot Dreams review | A tenderly observed animated film about friendship and loneliness

Robot Dreams review
Share this Article:

Friendship blooms between a dog and a robot in 1980s Manhattan in the exquisitely animated, Oscar-nominated Robot Dreams. Our review:

In a Best Animated Feature race against the might of Hayao Miyazaki at the 2023 Oscars, Robot Dreams was always going to be an underdog. Which is fitting, not only because director Pablo Berger’s film co-stars a dog (simply named Dog) but also because it’s such a quiet, charmingly unassuming drama.

Set in an alternate 1980s Manhattan populated by animals, Robot Dreams introduces the lonely Dog, who lives in a humble flat in the East Village and whiles away his evenings watching TV, playing his Atari 2600, and eating microwaved macaroni cheese.

Longing for connection, Dog purchases a flat-pack robot from a mail order company; once assembled, the wide-eyed automata becomes a faithful companion – at least until an unfortunate series of events see the two separated, and Robot winds up stranded on a beach for months on end.

Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Sara Varon, Robot Dreams is exquisitely observed right from its opening frames. Its evocation of a bygone New York City, from the twin towers still peering over the skyline to breakdancers in the street to Dog’s period-accurate collection of Atari cartridges (Seaquest!), is never less than exquisite. Every scene has something new to spot: the products and signs of a time long gone; the array of fashions and cultures packed into Central Park one balmy late summer afternoon.

It’s the ideal backdrop for a wistful story about the passing of time and how it alters friendships – a theme illustrated by little vignettes that show changing seasons and the odd little things that happen to Dog and Robot as the months tick by.

Berger’s film is both rooted in its own reality, but also nimble enough to float away on occasional whimsical tangents – there’s a dream sequence that pays homage to both The Wizard Of Oz and animator Max Fleischer at the same time, and a trip to a bowling alley that tips its hat to The Big Lebowski.

Robot Dreams is also told without a word of dialogue, and it says a great deal about the strength of its animation that the lack of conversation is barely felt. Dog, in particular, is an immediately relatable comic creation – an earnest yet unfailingly clumsy pup whose attempts at making friends and trying out new pastimes reliably ends in either disappointment, disaster or both.

Similarly, Robot is a childlike innocent whose story also sees him changed by time – some of the film’s most visually captivating scenes revolve around its reaction to simple things like the falling of snow or a bird building its nest.

Curiously, Robot Dreams shares much in common with Celine Song’s Past Lives – a similarly plaintive 2023 film about the effects of time on relationships, and which is also a period piece (partly) set in New York. Both touch on a distinctly urban sense of dislocation – the feeling of being surrounded by life and activity, but somehow set apart from it. The pair would undoubtedly make for a soothing, gently melancholy double-bill.

Robot Dreams is out in UK cinemas on 22nd March.

Share this Article:

More like this