Robot Dreams Review: Computer Blues

Most kids remember forever the books they were given about cute animals, like Tarka the Otter or Charlotte’s Web, in which, after the author spent the entire book triggering empathy for fellow living things, they lead to a tragic ending in which the major critter character dies. To a youngster, that can feel sadistic, and hell, probably at least some percentage of you reading this aren’t over the death of a fictional character you identified within a story like that. As an adult, and especially a parent, however, you recognize it as a way to allow kids to process death in fiction. You hope it’s before they’ll have to face it in reality.

Speak No Evil

The dialogue-free Robot Dreams, while based on a wordless graphic novel for children, feels like it’s here to impart a lesson about loss to adults, one all about break-ups and friends who ghost you. There’s nothing here that’s not appropriate for children to see, exactly, but it feels more about the vagaries of adult relationships than the spontaneity of kids at play. It’s director Pablo Berger‘s first animated film, following three live-action features, one of which is effectively silent. It stars cartoon animals, yet in many ways, it’s his most mature (and least shocking) work to date.

Robot Dreams is set in a version of New York City in the ’80s, as shown by various visual pop-culture cues and the World Trade Center. It’s populated entirely by intelligent, humanoid animals, whom we’re meant to read as allegories for types of people rather than literal representations of their species. In other words, don’t get hung up on depictions of interspecies couples relative to the lack of hybrid mutant offspring. This is about symbolism rather than alternate world-building. Every animal is simply named what they are, too, which would get confusing in a larger-scale story, but this is mostly just the tale of a dog named Dog.

Ruff Love

Dog lives alone, flipping through TV channels and playing Pong at night, subsisting on macaroni and cheese TV dinners with cans of Tab. In an era where late-night infomercials were still king, however, he stumbles upon one for a personal robot. The ’80s frequently promised such things — in reality, you might get a motorized toy on wheels that could be programmed with basic tasks like setting an alarm or bringing you a soda. Robot Dreams, however, indulges the fantasy of what kids of the decade thought could be possible — a full-sized robot friend (named Robot, natch), in this case, capable of big smiles on his gumdrop-shaped head.

Dog’s life is instantly better. He and Robot go out for dinner, they dance in the park, hold hands, go to Coney Island, and even swim underwater in the ocean. That last one proves a severe miscalculation, though. After both of them come ashore and fall asleep on the beach, they awaken after dark to find it closed and Robot rusted stiff. Dog can’t move him but vows to come back the next day with tools to fix him. Unfortunately, the beach is now closed for the season, and the literal large apes who serve as security guards aren’t particularly open to pleas or nuance. What can Dog do when the place is going to be locked up until June?

Separation, Anxiety

While Dog makes futile attempts to break in, Robot envisions himself escaping several times, only to be jerked back at the last second, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge-style, into the reality of being paralyzed and alone on the sand. Eventually, Dog tries to make other friends, both literally (a snowman who comes to life) and figuratively (a date with a duck who promptly ghosts him and moves abroad). June eventually arrives, but the day before the park opens…well, let’s just say a new obstacle makes itself known.

Suffice it to say this is not a movie about happy reunions, but moving on from separations. Dog’s initial neglect at protecting Robot from rusting is the sort of misstep that does lead to real-life break-ups, while leaving a strong enough impression that the responsible party will certainly learn never to do that again. Relationships that are great may nonetheless not be right, but prepare a person for the one that is.

Unnamed Love

There’s an odd middle-ground in the dynamic between Robot and Dog: they feel like more than just friends, but not in a way that implies anything erotic. (Perhaps, using current terminology, we could call it Ace but not Aro, though it feels more universal than such specifics might imply.) For those who want to view it as a parable of a breakup, the movie offers enough hints; for those who simply want to see it as about the potential fickleness of friendship, well, you can.

Nobody kisses or has sex in this cartoon, and it wouldn’t be outside the pale to imagine it as a tool to teach young children about divorce if one must. Yet its reliance on unspoken feelings and lack of entirely satisfactory resolution feels more grown-up, like life as an adult when friends move away become preoccupied with something else, or stop communicating for a thousand different reasons. Some of the circumstances keeping Robot and Dog apart are unavoidable external forces; others are simply a product of time and change.

The animation, which keeps most of its characters cute, feels like a comfy halfway between Clasky-Csupo and Matt Groening, keeping the latter’s happy, rounded, clean lines while indulging the imagination of the former. Nothing ever feels like a visual shortcut, even though the independent Dog still has a collar, presumably to allow for the Hanna Barbera trick of animating the face separately from the body.

These Dreams

Extensive usage of dreams allows room for even more creativity, at one point breaking the fourth wall in a way that can surprise the viewer on a big or small screen. But while everything in the movie feels alive and in motion, it’s the simplest things that work best. The movement of the pupils inside cartoon eyes — mere white circles with black dots inside — might even make your heart break at times.

Only one real problem with the movie endures, and it’s entirely subjective: the overuse of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” on the soundtrack as part of the plot. It’s already played to death in movies generally, but in recent years, the “bad flute playing” version of it that has infested YouTube and TikTok is enough to generate a visceral revulsion, especially when Robot starts “whistling” it. Your mileage may vary, of course, but there’s no reason the filmmakers couldn’t have paid less for a more under-utilized tune.

Grade: 9/10

As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a 9 equates to “Excellent. Entertainment that reaches this level is at the top of its type. The gold standard that every creator aims to reach.”

Robot Dreams opens in wide release in theaters May 31.

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