It might be counterintuitive to suggest that film festivals are lonely places. What about the crowds, all the social gatherings and random conversations with strangers, you might rightfully ask. But they ultimately are, often leaving one alone with their own thoughts and a painfully sleep-deprived stamina. Which is perhaps why that the undercurrent of loneliness in the melancholic and dialogue-free “Robot Dreams,” a wonderful 2D animation by Spanish director Pablo Berger (of the also wordless “Blancanieves,” making his animation debut), felt so real and disarming straightaway to this critic on a lonesome, rainy morning in Cannes.
But make no mistake; even outside of the festival circuits, this sweet film on love, friendship and life in New York City is bound to strike a chord with general audiences willing to be coddled with something both innocent and grown-up, that defies the bloat of present-day Disney in its warmth and complexities. After all, the need to have that one special companion to click with in all the right ways—the very idea at the heart of “Robot Dreams”—is a universal desire, one that Berger gently and adoringly portrays while bringing to mind both “Frankenstein” and the recent quirky comedy “Brian and Charles” in small doses. Alone, bad. Friend, good.
Still, the beautifully detailed “Robot Dreams” is entirely its own thing. Adapted from Sara Varon’s graphic novel and acquired by Neon prior to its Cannes premiere, it is set in the Big Apple of the ‘80s; or perhaps the late ‘70s, if the glorious and frequently played Earth, Wind and Fire track “September” is any indication. And this old New York certainly looks and feels different than our current one, at least by virtue of being the home of millions of anthropomorphized, bipedal animal residents going about their daily lives within the sight of the Twin Towers, achingly completing the town’s unmistakable skyline of yore.
Though the city’s rhythms are still ageless and familiar, flowing through its low-rise downtown tenements and majestic skyscrapers. One New Yorker who could desperately use a friend amid that chaos is Dog—yes, named just Dog—eating his sad microwave dinners every night, playing pong to kill time and peeking into the living rooms of his neighbors “Rear Window”-style, only to spot families and couples blissfully sharing each other’s company. Surely, no Dog should be this sad and alone. Definitely not this Dog, an amiable-faced and soft-eyed creature humans would be lining up to adopt in a normal world. So Dog decides to take matters into his own paws once and for all, and orders a Robot from an infomercial to alleviate the monotony of his existence at a time before distractions like social media created a false sense of fulfillment.
Once snapped together screw by screw and bolt by bolt, Robot instantly fills a gaping hole in Dog’s life, becoming his best buddy for life. The two turn Berger’s colorful and hand-drawn Manhattan and beyond into an isle of joy in no time, going on adventures like dancing and roller blading in Central Park. Cue in the cheerful “September” and its meaningful lyrics: “Our hearts were ringin’ in the key that our souls were singin’ as we danced the night…”
Through these scenes and others, Berger dotingly brings to life the urban vivacity that surrounds the two, with countless grace notes on the kinds of personalities that make New York one of the most diverse, compact and vibrant metropolises of the world. But a beach trip changes everything for the happy duo—after a delightful swim on a hot summer’s day, the unsuspecting Robot rusts away, with his helpless buddy Dog unable to move him despite his best efforts. Indeed, it’s sometimes hard to find a helping hand in New York when you need it the most.
What follows in “Robot Dreams” is a subtly devastating chapter, mournful and heartbreaking with its sense of loss, further intensified by the bureaucracies of a city hostile towards its little people (ahem, Dogs) doing the best they can to preserve their little pockets of sanity. One such bureaucracy dreadfully hampers Dog, forcing him to leave his Robot friend on the beach, now closed until the next summer. Poor Robot…left with nothing but memories and a bitter winter ahead, he just dreams about his possible rescue one day, hoping to reunite with his friend. Berger and his team of animators creatively embrace these daydreams, piecing together a sequence of startling narrative economy with a sure handle on the passage of time.
And the time does pass, seasons change and eventually, so do the hearts as they often do. Brought together through the urgent needs of the soul and separated due to nothing but cruel circumstances, what could Dog and Robot do, if not move on and find new songs, new life partners to accompany their respective lives? In that regard, “Robot Dreams”—as much a movie about coupledom as it is about friendship—sneaks up on you with an ending that both eulogizes the ones that got away and celebrates the memories that they had left behind. Bolstered by the resilient spirit of New York City, this is one of the loveliest movies that you will see this year, animated or otherwise.