Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of Elle Driver
A cause of celebration for lovers of the animated cinema, there is a lovely, bittersweet new thing for us all to savour. Pablo Berger’s Robot Dreams is miraculously his first foray into animation, yet it retains his trademark playfulness and builds to an uplifting – if overly protracted – crescendo of warm hopefulness.
Robot Dreams is about the helpfully named Dog, who lives in Manhattan’s East Village in the 1980s. Berger subtly and gently draws us an image of isolation and depression: Dog has no friends but watches longingly from his apartment window at the people passing below. He spends his nights playing pong and flicking through the television, numbly whittling away the hours.
Berger portrays Dog’s loneliness as a sad absence of feeling, of numbness. It’s not that Dog is depressed, rather we see that he has nothing worth living for because he has nobody in his life. He feels nothing because he has nobody; his gorgeously animated eyes containing fathoms of longing. For a film which will undoubtedly draw younger viewers, this feels important.
Dog finally finds a like-minded companion in Robot, who is ordered over the phone and delivered to his apartment. Robot tentatively leads Dog out into the busy streets of Berger’s rendering of the greatest city on the planet. It looks like the one we know but is populated exclusively by animals, and blossoms before us like a flower.
Robot Dreams is beautiful to behold, hand-drawn in a way which is reminiscent of Hergè’s The Adventures of Tintin or Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix. In an era in which animation artists find themselves beholden to computers and the whims of artificial intelligence, this film is a refreshing change of palette which lessens the impact of some sluggish pacing.
Berger’s vision of New York is exuberant: an octopus bangs drums on the subway, a duck flies kites in Central Park. His version of the East Village is full of wonderful real-life touches which add to the surreal sweetness like The Strand Bookstore and Vesuvius Pizza. Are we to believe that animals built these? That’s the logic of adulthood… Berger asks us to just enjoy the view. He also references the iconic shot of the Queensboro Bridge from Woody Allen’s Manhattan – bonus points from me.
The film begins to lose steam after Robot is stranded on the beach when his batteries die. How will he make it home? The beach is shut until the summer season begins again, although Dog, strangely, doesn’t really make much of an attempt to rescue him.
It’s on the beach that Robot is subjected to the full gamut of adult experience and emotion. Sleazy pigs hack off his leg for parts. A gentle little bird uses his armpit as a nest, and Robot watches with awe as her eggs hatch and candy-pink chicks stare up at him. It’s emotional stuff.
It makes it frustrating that Robot Dreams is an increasingly uneven film with a tone that manages to evoke genuine sadness through the sheer sweetness of its lovable central duo, but some scenes are genuinely upsetting – at least one child in the screening I attended was in tears. This looks like a film for younger viewers but wants to be a film for adults, striking an uneasy balance between both.
Not to say Robot Dreams isn’t worth a watch. For older children grappling with the emotional and social turbulences of puberty this especially this feels like it could have genuine worth, and the fact that not a single word of dialogue is said over the course of its 100-minute runtime gives it a universal appeal which transcends language and geography. Just make sure there’s tissues handy.
Robot Dreams – official trailer
For more on Robot Dreams visit www.elledriver.fr/en/movie/robot-dreams
LFF screenings begin at MAC on 4 October and run until 15 October, with tickets for all films and events on the programme now on sale. For full listings and links to online ticket sales visit: www.macbirmingham.co.uk/london-film-festival-2023
To read more about the BFI London Film Festival go to: www.whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
For more from MAC, including all events listings, visit www.macbirmingham.co.uk
To follow Jimmy Dougan on Letterboxed visit www.letterboxd.com/jimmydougan