Robot Dreams (2023)

Dog and Robot stop for a hot dog in Neon’s Oscar-nominated “Robot Dreams.”

Lovely ‘Robot Dreams’ will touch your heart

Of late, AI has been getting a bad rap. As if to counter the negative publicity, Pablo Berger gifts us “Robot Dreams,” his lovely Oscar-nominated ’toon about a humanoid forging a lasting bond with a lonely pooch named Dog.

Absent a lick of dialogue, Berger utilizes clever, often hilarious visuals to movingly illustrate the delight in finding companionship, only to lose it almost as fast as it’s found.

As much as I’d love to recount all the best bits in a movie teeming with clever sight gags and fantastical adventures comprising the “dreams” of the title, it would be criminal to reveal them. Just know that “Robot Dreams” is pure bliss.

Evoking an array of emotions, the story, adapted by Berger from a graphic novel by Sara Varon (who lends her surname to Dog), “Robot Dreams” wastes no time establishing an alternate universe where humans are nonexistent and four-legged creatures reign supreme, a la Disney’s Oscar-winning “Zootopia.” To Dog, it seems like every one of his fellow critters has a partner but him. He hates living alone, playing Pong (it’s 1984) and dining nightly on Banquet TV dinners washed down with swigs of Tab.

One night while watching the tube in his East Village apartment, he spots just what he’s been looking for, an ad for the Amica 2000, a sure-fire cure for loneliness – some assembly required. Dog impatiently stands watch at his window, eagerly anticipating its arrival. And once he switches the machine on, his life is forever changed.

With perfect use of montage set to Earth Wind and Fire’s “September,” Berger exhilarates us with scenes of Dog and Robot taking walks, roller-skating, munching hot dogs and curling up on the couch to watch “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s as funny as it is stirring, eliciting moments of joy and wonder. But an ill-advised trip to the beach proves fateful, as Dog and Robot become separated, perhaps forever.

It tears your heart out. And it becomes more distressing as the weeks wear on, with Robot left clinging to his vivid dreams of being reunited with Dog, and Dog retreating back into his shell, worse off now that he’s experienced the pleasure of companionship.

The shared despair pervades much of the movie’s midsection, and you’d think it would start to get dull and repetitive. But it’s the opposite, with the story becoming increasingly more poignant. Again, without a word of dialogue, reaching its zenith with a hallucinogenic show-stopping depiction of one of Robot’s dreams in which he’s literally at the center of a Busby Berkeley number accompanied by a chorus line of uprooted daisies.

The entire movie is equally surreal, yet it works because the subject is universal, transcending time and language, and is one that forces us to confront our own fears of loneliness and isolation, a human dilemma of epic proportions during the COVID pandemic. Like Dog and Robot, we were suddenly cut off from our support network, confined to our homes and for some, deprived of physical contact. What’s a person to do but dream and reminisce about the good times?

Berger enhances the melancholy with repeated visual references to the Twin Towers, standing in all their pre-9/11 glory. I’m not quite sure what he aims to convey, but that’s the beauty of “Robot Dreams.” It challenges you on so many levels, from its salute to classic movies, personalities and fairytales to its covert call for peace and understanding in an ever more divided world.

In my estimation, the inventive Spaniard has created the perfect companion piece to fellow Oscar-nominee “Past Lives” with its depiction of fate and its power to pierce the heart. Will Dog ever see Robot again? And will things ever be like they were? Are things ever as expected on this roller-coaster ride we call life? The answers are as hysterical as they are touching, as Berger builds toward a finale so real, so moving, you’ll never forget it.

Movie review

Robot Dreams

Rated: Not rated

Director: Pablo Berger

Writers: Pablo Berger and Sara Varon

Runtime: 103 minutes

Where: In theaters May 31

Grade: A

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