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Robot Dreams review: "This dog-and-bot bromance is a charming, wordless wonder"

 Robot Dreams.
Robot Dreams.

Do androids really dream of electric sheep? Robot reveries turn out to be far more rich and soulful than Philip K. Dick suggested in Pablo Berger’s heartwarming (and sometimes heartbreaking) Oscar-nominated animation about a lonely New York City dog and his robot buddy.

Surprisingly, this vibrant, moving story about the very human need for friendship and connection has zero humans in it, because Dog is pining for a pal in a bustling, Zootropolis-style animal-packed 1980s Big Apple. His solitary life of Pong-for-one and ready meals is transformed when he literally makes a friend, laboriously constructing Robot from a TV-advertised kit.

The second sizeable surprise is that this cleverly compassionate film also has no dialogue. Director Pablo Berger’s lush silent-cinema take on Snow White, 2012’s Blancanieves, proved he was a whiz at visual storytelling. But here he uses Chaplinesque physical comedy to show Dog and Robot’s growing happiness, as they roller-disco dizzyingly in Central Park to Earth, Wind and Fire’s September,  which becomes ‘their’ song, commemorating the month they met.

Sweet, authentic facial expressions (strictly no stretchy cartoon shtick) signal Robot’s gleeful wonder at discovering the joy of skyscrapers, fat squelchy hotdogs and a groovy octopus bucket-drummer on the subway. Rather than Ron’s Gone Wrong AI-robot chaos, Dog and Robot’s happy hang-outs have a charming Brian and Charles vibe, as Robot’s childlike delight in NYC cements his bond with grateful Dog.

Berger’s first animated outing (a passion-project adaptation of Sara Varon’s 2007 graphic novel) is also a deliciously detailed love letter to New York City, painting a note-perfect recreation of noisy, scuzzy '80s streetlife for his funky, retro animal characters.

It’s all rendered in glowing colors and 2D ‘clean line’ Tintin-like animation. But when an idyllic day of Rockaway Beach swimming rusts Robot’s joints and battery into immovability, New York bites back: the NYPD and City Hall force frantic Dog to leave him stranded on the firmly fenced-off beach till next summer.

Robot Dreams
Robot Dreams

Forking cleverly here, the film gets more melancholy but also pleasingly ambitious, exploring Dog’s guilty attempts at rescue and time-filling hobbies, while diving headlong into Robot’s inner yearnings.

As snow-covered Robot sinks into surreal worried-or-wacky dreams about a Dog reunion, the film’s world opens wide and gets experimental. Soon he (and we) are reeling at encounters with rabbit rotters in a rowboat, twisty fantasy escapes, and a fourth-wall turnaround whisking us into a wild Wizard of Oz tap-dancing extravaganza.

If Robot’s reveries deepen the film’s emotional themes, Dog’s try-hard quests allow Berger to bring on delightful Jacques Tati-style comedy: take the soaring winter-sports slapstick with aggro anteaters for example, or Dog’s trippy bowling date with a scary snowman.

Using the same clean 2D style throughout all these episodes keeps everything unified, as do different, poignant soundtrack versions of September, the musical thread connecting distant Dog and Robot throughout. The drifty, dream-punctuated second half might puzzle younger kids, though its universal themes and visual gags are perfectly all-ages appropriate. As is the film’s sweet, un-snarky tone, free from sly Futurama satire or Bojack Horseman raunch.

Despite some nifty plot twists (including big bird love for Robot) the film does get too overlong and dawdling for its slender story. Still, paring back Dog and Robot’s wild or wistful quests would have denied us the wealth of fun sight gags and sly detail (posturing punks, turnstile-jumpers, the sad pop-pop bubbles of microwaving a single portion of mac and cheese) that Berger loves to linger on.

But his biggest coup is not getting too hung up on the notion of ‘soulmates’; instead, he’s created a dream-filled movie that identifies emotional realities about change and personal growth. For both Dog and Robot, it’s not who you love, but how you love that matters.


Robot Dreams is in UK cinemas now. For more upcoming movies, check out our guide to 2024 movie release dates.