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Pablo Berger’s Oscar-Nominated Animated Feature ‘Robot Dreams’ Finally Releases

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I don’t know what happened for NEON to campaign hard for Robot Dreams’ Oscar prospects, only for them not to release it wide until the beginning of June. The movie was eventually nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (ultimately losing to Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron), but without the opportunity for the public to actively see it during prime awards season, where everyone catches up on the titles they’ve missed before the ceremony. 

In fact, Robot Dreams did not get a proper theatrical release in the key markets it usually plays for Awards consideration (New York and Los Angeles); instead, it sporadically played at several FYC events until it qualified. Perhaps it’s a good approach before Oscar nominations, but there were no other dates until deeper into awards season, where NEON shook the film community by releasing it after everything was over.

What was the point of such a massive awards campaign if the public can’t see it to a point where they likely won’t care about it? Who knows, and we’ll never find out because the film itself should be on everyone’s radar, if only for its incredible use of hand-drawn animation and representation of space. 

[Warning: Spoilers from this film discussed below!]

Robot Dreams plot summary

There’s no denying the film doesn’t reinvent the wheel regarding the story, but writer/director Pablo Berger’s world is highly imaginative. Adapted from the comic of the same name by Sara Varon, the movie follows a lonely dog who desperately wants to make friends. One day, he sees an advertisement on TV for a Robot friend, to which he immediately orders. When the robot arrives, the two connect like they’ve always been the best of friends – dancing (perfectly in tune) to Earth, Wind and Fire’s September (which acts as a leitmotiv throughout the picture), and scuba diving by the beach looking for the rarest fishes. 

After their stint on the beach, the Robot begins to rust and can’t stand up anymore. This leads Dog to become separated from him, as he attempts to return from the beach, which becomes closed for the winter. The rest of the movie isn’t as interesting as Berger thinks it is, but it’s always retaining our attention with its simple but effective animation design.

It’s a complicated task nowadays to always attract the audience, especially with a movie containing zero important dialogues (the last time an animated film of this caliber was nominated for an Oscar was Sylvain Chomet’s incredible The Triplets of Belleville, twenty years ago). However, Berger’s image-making requires your patience and time since what’s on-screen is always incredibly striking, using space in a daring, almost three-dimensional way that few 3D animated movies do, always putting their horizon in the middle of the frame and populating their backgrounds with little images of note. 

Robot Dreams dazzles with its intricate animation

In Robot Dreams, there isn’t a single frame that doesn’t ooze with fine details that make its world far more lived-in than you would think, particularly during the titular “Robot Dreams,” where the Robot actively dreams of escape from the rust and journeys to reunite with Dog. Of course, these scenarios are as improbable as the last, but they allow Berger and his team to craft some incredible sequences, one involving a warped vision of Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz that reinterprets the Yellow Brick Road into a far bigger drug trip than its unofficial sequel, Walter Murch’s Return to Oz, did in 1985. 

The dialogue-less plot also allows for more poetic moments involving the Robot, as his current predicament makes him connect with a group of birds, as they learn to fly and sing through his gestures and the Earth, Wind and Fire track he continuously whistles. It won’t be hard for anyone to be emotionally swept up by the film’s more quiet moments, especially when Robot meditates on the beach with the birds he begins to raise or when Dog longs to reunite with Robot (sharply-edited brief montages flash before our eyes as they remember the time and connection they spent together, even if this is part of Robot’s programming). 

Image from Robot Dreams
Dog and Robot in Robot Dreams (Neon)

Pablo Berger’s film can’t sustain a feature-length runtime

The movie quickly diverges into a series of uninteresting vignettes that dilute the movie’s ultimate emotional impact, including a detour where Dog, in a vain attempt to make friends, goes skiing in the Catskills. This leads into an extended slapstick chase scene that feels plucked out of an entirely different film than the rest of the picture. It isn’t at all warranted to understand Dog’s emotional progression within its diegesis. (it’s also the one that resembles the closest, aesthetically and musically, to Chomet’s Oscar-nominated animated film).

It doesn’t help that Robot’s situation on the beach begins to get cyclical as the movie progresses, since the story slowly gets out of this moment in favor of a much darker but ultimately unrewarding final act. 

I should’ve seen how Berger wrapped the movie up a mile away, but I was immediately distracted by how manipulative it became as he seemingly began to look for tawdry ways to make its audience cry, repeatedly badgering the speakers over the head with September, as Robot and Dog reminisce about their past moments together. Somehow, this reminded me of how Past Lives wrapped up, though without the humanism and raw emotional power that made it so cathartic.

It feels cheap and unrewarding here because they’re anthropomorphized creatures, not humans. Still, its easygoing nature will prove crowd-pleasing for moviegoers looking for a cozy, uncomplicated time on the big screen. This will likely be the answer to their prayers, and one that the whole family can watch, which can perhaps even introduce younger viewers to the power of the silver screen as it becomes their first movie. In that regard, what more can you ask for?

Robot Dreams is now playing in theaters.  Are you going to check out this animated film? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus!

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