Sarajevo 2023 review: Robot Dreams (Pablo Berger)

“As one of the year’s most unexpectedly moving films, Robot Dreams has many surprises lurking beneath the surface – a sardonic sense of humour, absolutely stunning animation and a touch of the most profound humanity imaginable.”

We all need a friend from time to time, a companion with whom we can pass the time and enjoy life’s most simple pleasures. Unfortunately for some these kinds of relationships are not easy to come by, which is the case for Dog, the protagonist in Pablo Berger’s wonderful Robot Dreams. He is on a perpetual search for someone with whom he can experience life’s many surprises, which results in him coming across a company that provides companions in the form of robots designed to keep the users company and form lifelong connections with them. A simple film with as compassionate and daring a spirit as any live-action counterpart that explores similar themes, Robot Dreams is reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s Her in more ways than one, which is entirely appropriate considering how many of the ideas embedded in this story are relevant to the direction in which our world is heading. And in borrowing the title from a short story collection by the pioneer of robotic fiction Isaac Asimov, this film has a clear vision of what it intends to do and say with its material. This results in a concise, compelling and wildly entertaining comedy that bridges the gap between generations and cultures, looking at certain aspects of life that we have all experienced, and filtering it through a very familiar lens.

One of the more resonant aspects of Robot Dreams is how it strives consistently towards being accessible to all – we rarely find films that are not marketed at one particular group over another, whether in terms of age or cultural background. Part of the appeal of this film is how it touches on universal themes that can be appreciated by everyone, which it does through both literal and metaphorical means. The film is entirely without dialogue, and the only instances of written language are incidental, not carrying any narrative significance for the most part. Instead the story uses the visual scope, combined with the underlying emotional content, to create something very special. It is not surprising that this film is written and directed by Berger, who has made a career out of creating films that don’t fit into any known boundaries or genres, but instead are works of abstract expression. Each one is handcrafted from his artistic curiosity (who could have expected the director of the dark fairytale Blancanieves to be capable of such a broad, accessible animated comedy that is the opposite of that film in every way?), coupled with a deeper message that is clear but never overly obvious until we are right at the heart of the narrative.

Ultimately, there is more humanity in a single frame of Robot Dreams than there is in many dense, explicitly dramatic works. Part of this comes from how unexpected this film tends to be – it is a colourful, traditionally animated film that looks like it is aimed at exclusively younger audiences. However, this is nothing more than an artistic Trojan Horse, since once we are immersed in the story we see something much deeper. Robot Dreams is about friendship in various forms, and while the story is extremely straightforward and there aren’t any attempts to complicate it beyond the wonderfully simple premise, Berger does take the opportunity to quietly develop some of the more unconventional ideas, which manifest in creative and unexpected ways. The benefit of animation is that it allows for abstract representations of conventional concepts – and this creates a scenario in which the most poignant and moving examination of the theme of friendship and loneliness comes in the story of an anthropomorphic dog and his robot companion, existing in a world seemingly untouched by humans. Yet, it never once feels implausible, primarily because the emotions at the heart of the film are executed with nothing but the most earnest authenticity, which immediately adds to the stunning emotional inventory that propels this film and makes it such a special curio of contemporary storytelling.

As one of the year’s most unexpectedly moving films, Robot Dreams has many surprises lurking beneath the surface – a sardonic sense of humour, absolutely stunning animation and a touch of the most profound humanity imaginable. They all work in tandem to create an authentic and compelling experience that somehow resonates with more genuine intricacy than many explicitly complex films that explore the same subject. A perfect blend of slapstick comedy and more high-level humour, the film is easily appreciated by a much wider audience than most modern films, which is part of its incredible impact. Robot Dreams proves that there is always merit in stepping away from the mainstream studios and finding the most profound and compelling works of animation being produced by independent and arthouse companies, who pour every bit of heart and soul they can muster into telling these engaging, captivating and deeply meaningful stories. Berger as a director has never settled for a specific style or authorial approach, but has instead chosen to simply pursue the stories that mean the most to him as an artist, which is the precise reason a film like this comes across as being so deeply earnest. Its simplicity is a virtue and it carries a wonderfully uplifting message, one that is not afraid to infuse more melancholic elements into its upbeat story. This creates a deeply moving and heartfelt comedy that offers us something new, all the while focusing on a subject to which we all can relate; an achievement that is by no means easy to come by, especially in a cinematic landscape driven by so much convention, which this film actively fights to overcome in its own irreverent and charming way.