Directed by: Pablo Berger
Written by: Pablo Berger
Released: April 11, 2024
Grade: A-

Robot Dreams

When the Academy Award nominations were announced on 23 January 2024, one nod which put a smile on many faces that for Robot Dreams in the best animated feature film category.  It was a European film made on a budget of just €5 million which had not yet been released in the United States.  Based on great word of mouth at film festivals including Cannes and Toronto, it wove its way into the hearts of Oscar voters over more conventional films.

The story is simple and powerful.  It’s set in the 1980s and features a dystopian version of New York City where the landmarks are the same… but animals live there as opposed to humans.  The central character is a lonely dog who has a nice apartment but no friends to share it with.  In search of companionship, he orders an Amica 2000 robot after seeing a television infomercial.  The two quickly become inseparable with the fast-learning robot developing a habit of mimicking those around it (whether it be holding hands, or giving the “middle finger”).

Tragedy then strikes.  After a day swimming at the beach, the robot malfunctions and its limbs seize up (probably should have got it wet).  The dog has no way of fixing his friend and it is left on the shoreline as security lock the beach’s gates for the upcoming winter.  Not only is he back to being alone, the poor dog now as the added baggage of losing his closet companion.

It takes a little while to get going but this is an outstanding film.  Now is probably for the time to mention there isn’t a single word of spoken dialogue in the entire movie.  Just like The Shaun the Sheep Movie, we understand and empathise with these characters because of their actions and facial expressions.  This approach also gives it universal appeal.  It’s a Spanish-French co-production but with no words, there’s no need for subtitles.

The script is based on a 2007 graphic novel authored by American Sara Varon, and writer-director Pablo Berger deserves praise in keeping the essence and grittiness of the material.  There’s an upper layer which kids can easily follow but there are other deeper layers which require a higher maturity level to fully grasp.  It creatively blends dreams with reality, it delves into the subject of loneliness, and it’s not afraid to be dark and sad.  There’s much to soak up within the 102-minute running time.

At a time when animated features are feeling more and more formulaic, Robot Dreams is an original entry which stands out from the pack.