'Robot Dreams' Yearns for Old Friends and a Bygone New York

Directed by Pablo Berger

BY Nathan ChizenPublished Jun 5, 2024


In his 1948 essay, "Here in New York," E.B. White wrote, "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness."

An author of books that followed the adventures of anthropomorphized animals, like the lovable farm critters of Charlotte's Web and the online-maligned Stuart Little, White's quote perfectly complements Pablo Berger's delightful first animated feature, Robot Dreams. Based on Sara Varon's graphic novel of the same name, the film retains its source material presentation set against a backdrop of a 1980s New York City populated by various species and cultural references. It's a grounded tribute to past friendships and a city that once existed that manages to break through its sometimes mechanical construction.

Premiering at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and a Best Animated Feature nominee at this year's Academy Awards, Robot Dreams wordlessly follows Dog, a slightly pear-shaped mutt in the East Village, and the Robot he builds to resolve his loneliness. After a day at Ocean Beach, where the two enjoy an afternoon of swimming and a nap on the beach, Robot seizes up. Dog, unable to lift his friend, is forced to leave him and desperately attempts to reunite. As winter settles in, all that Robot can do is dream. The film cuts between the two, back and forth, as they yearn for each other while growing apart.

By the time the second or so dream is dreamed, Robot Dreams verges on becoming tiresome. It goes from Robot to Dog to Robot again as they go through bittersweet, realistic depictions of love, admiration and loss. But before the story shuts down, formal shifts during dream sequences allow for the film to reboot and recapture its audience through bouts of magical (and animal) realism.

Despite his metal chassis and whirring and chirpy rendition of Earth, Wind & Fire's  "September," Robot is a tender soul. He mimics those around him, from goats hopping turnstiles to monkey punks flipping him the bird; he is a reflection of the city itself and a fellow constructed being. These other inhabitants, occupying their niches within the urban ecosystem, embody a New York long since gone.

While Robot Dreams centres on Dog and Robot in their efforts to reconnect, it approaches New York City with the same earnest love of its two leads. Featuring cartooned NYC staples like the Empire State Building, Coney Island and the landlord special, its nostalgic gaze avoids being cloying by not only showing what was, but also what had been lost. The Twin Towers stand proudly over Dog's Manhattan and Robot's dreams, and so do the memories of a city that had not yet been faced with indescribable terror.

Just as Dog yearns for Robot and vice versa, Robot Dreams yearns for that scrappy New York from which so many icons of popular culture came. Martin Scorsese (presented as a bearded koala) sits in the back of a cab, while the framing of Dog and Robot's bus trip to the beach calls back to the ending of Midnight Cowboy, another tale of friendship and its end in the urban detritus of pre-Koch New York.

While that film ends in tragedy, Robot Dreams chooses the natural way in which life goes on after a friend has come and gone. Just like Earth, Wind & Fire sing on "September," Robot Dreams chooses to remember the love that was once shared.

(Elevation Pictures)

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