“Robot Dreams” Forsakes Language to Honor Friendship

6. Robot Dreams © 2023 Arcadia Motion Pictures, Lokiz Films, Noodles Production, Les Films du Worso

When Pixar’s WALL-E came out in 2008, a lot of the conversation was about how there were no words for the first 35 or so minutes. We weren’t quite back to the silent movie days – WALL-E has a lush soundscape from the very beginning, but dialogue didn’t reflect the barren planet aesthetic and loneliness of our intrepid robot in the opening third of his titular film so they did without it. Out now, Robot Dreams builds on this concept and moves it forward.

Set in New York but financed by a bevy of European governments, Robot Dreams premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, was nominated for an Oscar, and is now being distributed by NEON, the studio that brought us awards contenders like Anatomy of the Fall, overlooked titles like Ava Duvernay’s Origin, and crowd pleasers like Ilana Glazer’s Babes.

Which is to say, that Robot Dreams doesn’t have the commercial expectations of a Pixar feature but it does have its artistic ambitions.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that Robot Dreams has a wide appeal. It’s a charming film that, like WALL-E before it, uses music and sound effects but no dialogue to introduce us to a lonely protagonist, who makes friends with a robot in a harsh world. Robot Dreams never abandons the conceit, telling its full story without words by relying on evocative but simple animation to tell its surprisingly nuanced story of friendship.

Its world design is simple, childlike even – it relies on two-dimensional line drawings filled with single colors, with no gradients or texture in sight. Robot Dreams then uses its simplicity to trick its audience into a false sense of security, drawing a deeper and more complex portrait of companionship and fidelity than seems possible with such whimsical colors and flat aesthetics.

That said, don’t expect any complicated ideas about AI or servitude. Yes, our main character, Dog, orders an android companion in the mail, puts him together, and then builds a relationship with Robot, teaching him the ways of the world. But Robot Dreams isn’t particularly interested in the moral quandaries of the situation it creates. It’s not 2013’s Her or any of its ilk.

Instead, Robot Dreams uses the specificity of its characters – Dog’s wagging tail, Robot’s super strength and naivete – to give us two unique individuals who find joy in each other’s company. There’s no sex (although Dog does date a duck at one point), just friendship, giving Robot Dreams a sweet aura, that surrounds even the later, more melancholy ending.

For all is not roses in Robot Dreams. Dog lives alone in a New York City apartment, part of the anonymous crowd. His attempts to build community – a sledding trip, a fling with Duck (she’s a baddie) – fail, leaving him if not more lonely, than no better off. Plus, it’s hard to learn from these fleeting and careless encounters – Dog needs something more meaningful to grow.

Fulfilling the classic big city stereotype, this New York offers no breaks. When Dog needs a favor from a security guard, he gets only strictness. When he petitions for help, the bureaucracy shoots him down. Robot only does a little better – he stars in a beautiful sequence with a mother bird and her chicks but falls prey to the city’s more selfish and cruel inhabitants.

Indeed Robot Dreams finds its drama in its robot/dog odd pairing, separating our two besties and resolving in an unexpectedly mature way. Ultimately, this is a film about learning from the people who come into our lives and doing right by them, even if that means letting them go. It’s a complex lesson to tell without words and one that Robot Dreams explores with heart, charm, and insight, creating that wonderful trick of art – a richly simple experience that reverberates into the soul.

Robot Dreams is in select theaters now.

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