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And yet, “Robot Dreams,” the stirring and delicate animated feature recently purchased by Neon doesn’t wholly give way to the bleakness it could easily assume. Though director Pablo Berger sets the film in the 1980s (a turbulent time in New York City), he subverts the common expectations for robot movies through savvy inventiveness, winking references, and an unfettered heart.
Dog and Robot are a quick match: They roller skate with the frivolity akin to Charlie Chaplin (“The Rink“) to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” (the sonic linchpin, which will be reused, interpolated, and remixed throughout the film); they get fast food together; they even venture to the beach with one another. Their communal time is boundlessly joyous, it leaps as high as the robot’s hops and is as deep as the seabed they dive to together. But tragedy abruptly suspends their bliss when Robot rusts so much during a midday swim that he cannot move from the beach. Dog doesn’t have the strength to push his friend either. He leaves him at the beach and heads back to his apartment. When he returns the next day, however, the beach is closed until June 1st. That means Dog will have to wait the entirety of fall, winter, and spring before he can retrieve his companion. It’s not news he takes lying down. He tries several times to break into the beach only to be detained. Despite his best attempts, he will have to wait. But what of Robot? Will he last throughout the year? Does he sleep or even dream?
At times there is sweetness that belies the obvious sadness. After all, this is a vibrant, rich film whose clean line and bright hues pop across a New York canvas, managing to succinctly capture the visual and sonic verve of the city. When it’s the summer, for instance, all of the electricity—the mixing of symphonic everyday life, from street musicians to the interwoven tracks of conversation—intimates the vast life and sense of community that springs forth in the hottest months. The winters, on the other hand, in their noted quietness encapsulate how lonely and isolating a big city can be. Dog feels that alienation as he tries to fill the months without Robot by looking to make friends at ski resorts, bowling alleys, and even kite flying. It is all for naught.
While pop culture references germane to the 1980s—Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “The Shining”—abound in “Robot Dreams,” it’s how Berger and co-writer Sara Varon (her same-titled graphic novel serves as the inspiration for the film) subvert common robot narratives that’s unique. Rather than graft from fears of evil android domination by way of organic matter’s subjugation, the script turns to the happier image of the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz” for inspiration. In one of Robot’s dreams, he envisions himself in Oz, where sunflowers proceed to perform a Busby Berkeley-style musical dance number. These fantasies—which include hopeful scenarios whereby he magically leaves the beach—also display his fear: That Dog will ultimately forget him. Because unlike “The Wizard of Oz,” Robot doesn’t need a heart to complete himself. Radically, he is physically whole as he is. His void arises from loneliness.
Make no mistake, this is a love story. The infomercial serves as the meet-cute, and their sweeping days together, however brief, are the embers that power their visions of reuniting. This isn’t to say “Robot Dreams” is solely pitched toward the idea of true love, true friendship, or any inextricable linkage. It smartly sidesteps such expectations, aiming for an ending that doesn’t just feel emotionally satisfying, but surprisingly mature.
“Robot Dreams” is singular in that regard, even when it may border on being slightly too sweet (which caused me to fear that the narrative wouldn’t provide enough sustenance beyond a short film). Even so, its radical sweetness arises from a wellspring of empathy. Its radiant colors and lucid conception of vulnerability in the face of a largely inconsiderate world, sink deep beneath the skin in the liminal space between the soul and the heart that can make animation such a wondrous medium. Berger’s “Robot Dreams” is its stunning reality. [A-]
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