(Warning: This film contains spoilers for Robot Dreams. As of writing this, the film’s been released through festivals and such since May, and it’s not receiving a wider release until December. So there’s a good chance you haven’t seen it. If you have any interest in watching Robot Dreams, please click away from this article and do something else. Maybe go bowling, but not with any snowmen or people named Walter.)
I’ve often thought about something Noah Cadwell-Gervais once said in his video talking about the Star Wars: Dark Forces/Jedi Knight games. When discussing Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith, he makes the point that some people are willing to forgive anything a creative work does if they’re enamoured enough with what that work is trying to accomplish.
I’m deeply fascinated by this idea, because I think it allows for a more nuanced approach to understanding a work’s intentions and how things which might otherwise be viewed in a more binary “good” or “bad” can affect our relationship with that work in unexpected ways. A work can have flaws, but if you love that work and what it’s going for, those flaws simply add texture and compliment its better qualities.
However, I find that the logical inverse of that is equally true: if you’re not that interested in the work, then its positives don’t mean squat in the face of irredeemable apathy. This has happened to me plenty of times over the years, and one time where I wish this hadn’t happened so strongly is with Robot Dreams.
The animation debut of Spanish film director Pablo Berger, Robot Dreams is about a lonely anthropomorphic dog in 1980s New York who decides to purchase a mail order robot. They hit it off incredibly well, in an introduction that really resonated with me. The dog’s loneliness is swiftly established – living on their own in an empty apartment eating bad dinners while seeing happy couples going about their lives – before we get sequences of them and the robot becoming friends at the park and on the beach.
I felt a strong romantic undercurrent from their interactions, with the focus on them slowly learning to hold hands, their in-sync rollerskate dancing to the tune of “September” by Earth, Wind and Fire (which becomes something of a recurring melody throughout the movie), and how openly passionate their friendship is expressed through their expressions and body language.
On that note, Robot Dreams features no spoken dialogue, and does a solid job at keeping things engaging thanks to the animation and direction work. Scenes will sometimes feature soft or playful piano music courtesy of Alfonso de Vilallonga, but are usually left with only ambience as their background noise. The film allows itself to breathe, which adds to a sense of emptiness felt throughout and is generally a very nice touch.
However, that introduction isn’t the entire film, as the dog and robot get separated early on due to (what can be described as) insurmountable legal nonsense and have to wait many months until they can possibly meet again. This passage of time is what takes up most of the movie, as they have to live apart and find new things to do in the meantime.
These diversions take many forms. For the dog, we get sequences where they attempt to take part in hobbies or find new companions. Meanwhile, the robot – who is stuck where they are – mostly experiences increasingly surreal dreams where they’re able to break free and reunite with the dog. The latter is where the movie’s namesake comes from, and tragically one of the things that started to alienate me.
I understand that the dreams occasionally hinted at the robot’s feelings, that they were always thinking about the dog but with an underlying worry that those feelings wouldn’t be reciprocated anymore and that the dog might’ve moved on. But these are fairly lengthy diversions that come off as meandering for the most part, dragging things out despite some neat visuals such as a Wizard of Oz-style sequence where New York is depicted as the Emerald City.
For the sake of fairness, it should be pointed out that Robot Dreams is based on a 2007 graphic novel by Sara Varon and is a mostly accurate adaptation in terms of the plot beats and character moments. These dreams also occur in the book, but have the benefit of taking place in a comic book without dialogue. You can quickly read through the pages and understand their point, whereas you have to sit through the movie’s dream sequences before you’re allowed to see anything else.
Admittedly, I also didn’t enjoy most of the vignettes involving the dog. They’re mainly about the dog trying and failing to make new connections, whether that’s a skiing holiday gone awry, making friends with a duck lady who ends up moving to Europe, or a truly bizarre bowling sequence involving a snowman (more on this in a second). I can see them working individually or if they were a bit tighter, but when they add up, it feels like the middle part of the movie takes forever to get across its ideas and I wound up feeling bored as a result.
That bowling sequence might be the most bewildering part of the whole film, not for the snowman that appears and is readily acknowledged by everyone. It’s more for the fact that we spend several minutes doing a typical movie bowling scene, and I can’t figure out why we’re doing this other than the fact that Robot Dreams decided to be an 80s period piece and bowling scenes are seemingly part of that 80s aesthetic.
The whole concept of “80s New York” is something specific to the film adaptation, and a direction that I don’t really resonate with. I found an interview with Pablo Berger where he talked about this, and how he wanted to set the film during a time and place that didn’t exist anymore. How he came to the conclusion that 1980s New York, one of the most overexposed times and places in the history of forever, was the best choice will forever elude me.
I think New York as a setting works in establishing a thriving cosmopolitan city. There’s all kinds of animals everywhere, and as a side note, I hugely appreciate that the entire cast is made up of funny animals in the old-fashioned way where the most that’s observed about it are some silly animal jokes (like seals playing ball at the seaside). That there’s so many people makes it easy to understand the dog’s loneliness and why they’re so desperate to make any kind of connection.
But otherwise, I don’t get any unique sense of texture from the place other than that it’s New York, and that it’s the 1980s is only made known through a load of obvious pop cultural references via Halloween costumes, posters, the aforementioned “September” tune, and the bowling sequence. It’s a pretty generic setting for the most part; it’s certainly no Cipher the Video; and I feel a stronger visual/tonal identity would’ve helped to make this chunk of the film more interesting.
I don’t normally dislike narrative diversions, where the film’s going off in whatever directions the creators want to explore. As long as they’re enjoying it and the results are compelling enough for me to jive to, I’m happy to join them on their rambling. But I didn’t enjoy Robot Dreams‘ many diversions and how much they dragged out the film, even if I do understand what they’re ultimately in aid of.
As the day of reunion approaches, unforeseen interruptions occur which result in the dog and robot unknowingly growing apart. They end up moving in different directions, with only the robot aware of what’s happened and having to make the choice to accept their new lives. It’s a bittersweet ending, and the fact that I was frustrated that they didn’t even meet properly one last time speaks to how well that opening resonated with me in spite of all the guff in between.
I can see how the middle chunk of the film is meant to set all this up, that the dog and robot’s various adventures apart are fleeting, and that their friendship is just as fleeting. That without keeping in touch, of course they’d drift apart and not even realize that’s what was going on until it was too late. Everything’s meant to build to that endgame and compliment each other, and should do so quite well.
But I can’t feel that myself. Like I said at the beginning, whatever positive qualities exist mean nothing if I’m not enamoured with whatever the work is trying to do, and I don’t feel strongly enough about the film Robot Dreams wants to be. The things it does well become white noise, and the things I don’t enjoy are further magnified by my apathy.
It’s a perfectly fine and well-crafted film, and one that I’d recommend giving a watch no matter what I’ve said. It’s always worth seeing things for yourself.
Too bad what I saw was a film I couldn’t get passionate about.
FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.