Review by Sean Boelman
Robot Dreams is a Spanish-French co-production based on an American graphic novel and featuring no dialogue. However, the story and message are so universal that it transcends all of these borders. Robot Dreams is truly a highlight in the animated cinema canon of 2023, featuring a story that’s so downright adorable it would be impossible to hate.
Based on the graphic novel by Sara Varon, Robot Dreams follows an anthropomorphic dog who purchases a robot to be his best friend, only for them to be separated, sending them on a quest to be reunited with one another. Viewers will run the gamut of emotions watching this — you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll go “awwww” several times — but that’s exactly the way it should be.
The choice to tell the film’s story with no dialogue and purely visual storytelling was an ambitious decision for director Pablo Berger, but it pays off quite well. The sound design of the movie is excellent, managing to get so much emotion out of something as simple as a squeak or the recurring motif of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” (which you may never hear without crying ever again after seeing this movie).
Yet, despite the fact that they never utter a word, it’s easy to fall in love with Dog and Robot. The amount of characterization Berger is able to get out of the characters early on through their actions and mannerisms will connect you with them immediately — although it would be hard not to love a dog and a robot being best friends anyway.
As one would expect, there are some moments in the film that are a bit tear-jerking. However, the movie culminates in one of the most emotional finales you’ll see in any animated movie this year, and every bit of the emotion you will feel is earned. It’s not the type of contrived ending that feels like it exists just to make viewers cry, but instead, is just incredibly poignant.
The 2D animation of Robot Dreams is also quite strong, chosen to replicate the style of Varon’s graphic novel. It’s very playful and lighthearted, yet done with an extraordinary amount of artistry — especially with regards to the backgrounds of this alternate version of New York City and the emotive character designs.
As the film was adapted from a graphic novel, it does have a bit of an episodic structure, much as one sees the stories confined within panels and pages of the source material. At a certain point, it begins to feel like you’re traveling along with Dog and Robot on a series of little adventures, giving it an absolutely magical feeling.
Robot Dreams is not just an adorable and poignant animated movie, but it’s an extraordinary achievement in visual storytelling. The fact that Berger was able to get so much emotion out of a simple premise with no dialogue is absolutely astounding, making this an early contender for best animated film of the year.
Robot Dreams screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.