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(Check our Chris Reed’s movie review of Robot Dreams, in theaters now via Neon. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

Based on Sara Varon’s eponymous 2007 graphic novel, the new film Robot Dreams, from Spanish writer/director Pablo Berger* (Abracadabra), follows the intersecting and parallel adventures and misadventures of two main characters, Dog and Robot, in New York City of 1984. The former, lonely and in need of friends, purchases Robot as a DIY kit, builds him, and then heads to the beach for a day of fun. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned, and our protagonists have to separate. Sweet and bittersweet in equal measure, the film features lovely 2D animation and was one of the 5 Oscar-nominated movies in the Animated Feature category for 2023.

Neither the book nor the movie offers any dialogue, yet meaning is clearly communicated in both circumstances via colorful visuals. In the case of the film, there is a robust sound design to accompany the images, including the occasional repetition of Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1978 hit “September.” All these different elements come together by the final act to tell this poignant tale of companionship forged, lost, and then forged again (though not as before).

It’s in the carefully constructed details that the narrative sings, each scene moving in its own unique way. Berger stays faithful to the broad strokes of Varon’s original story, yet makes changes (some small, some larger) that deepen the emotional connections between not only Dog and Robot, but the other folks they encounter on their respective odysseys. I use “folks” loosely here, since there are no actual humans anywhere: everyone is some form of anthropomorphized animal (or robot).

The title refers to the lengthy and varied visions of Robot after an unfortunate accident leaves him stranded, with Dog unable to assist. Trapped on the sands of Brooklyn’s Coney Island, Robot is forced to pass the time as the seasons change around him, rain and snow rusting and then burying his metallic body. All the while, he dreams of past joys and a hoped-for reunion with Dog, who, despite making every effort to rescue his friend, fails in that task and so must move on with his own life.

Eventually, spring arrives, and with it a truly inspired sequence involving a mother bird and her new hatchlings. Even in the midst of existential despair, Robot finds pleasure in helping others. It’s a harbinger of a kind of melancholy happy ending that Berger provides, though before we arrive at that destination there are a few more devastating twists and turns lying in wait. Much like the amusement-park rides dotting the beach landscape, Robot Dreams is a roller-coaster ride, journeying effortlessly towards profound catharsis. It didn’t win the Oscar, but it should have.

*Disclosure: Pablo Berger and I both worked for the New York Film Academy in the late 1990s/early 2000s, although we never formally met.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

Robot Dreams movie; Pablo Berger; Neon;

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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