A soul-lifting delight, Robot Dreams is an unlikely match for Past Lives

A dog and a robot form a precious bond—one that gets tested—in Oscar-nominated animated film Robot Dreams. At the risk of making himself sound insane, Liam Maguren draws a direct line between this cartoon and Celine Song’s Past Lives.

This year’s Oscar contest for Best Animated Feature Film was a real battle of the brands. Eventual winner, Studio Ghibli’s The Boy and the Heron, contended with Sony-Marvel’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Pixar’s Elemental, and Netflix’s Nimona for the Academy Award. And then there was Robot Dreams, the dark horse nominee that proved humbly budgeted animation could still earn recognition over blatant marketing exercises like Disney’s Wish.

Directed by Pablo Berger (Blancanieves), adapting Sara Varon’s 2007 graphic novel, Robot Dreams follows lonesome Dog in 1980s New York City. True to the time, a late-night TV advert presents a solution to Dog’s problem—a robot pal. Once this potential soul mate’s been delivered and constructed, the pair immediately hit the town. For Dog, it’s a wonderful first date. For Robot, it’s a wonderful first date and first day on this planet (albeit, an anthropomorphic one).

The idea of a Zootopia-fied NYC might cause harden cinephiles to turn their noses up to their eyebrows, but Robot Dreams presents a version of the Big Apple that is fun, unvarnished, and true to the period. Members of the growing punk scene flip the bird, an octopus street drummer busks next to a homeless bear digging through a bin, a cow manning a subway ticket booth can be seen visibly wishing she was anywhere else—the film is full of these loving lashes.

With absolutely no dialogue, Robot Dreams confidently leans on its visual storytelling and the strength of its animated performances (it’s always surprising how much emotion can be derived from two big hoop eyes and a one-line mouth). There’s a particularly touching moment where—after hours of row boating, sightseeing, and roller skating to a strategically weaponised use of Earth Wind and Fire’s September—the pair end the day with a viewing of The Wizard of Oz on a rented VHS. When Dog goes to turn the TV off, he notices Robot sound asleep with a big smile from ear to metal ear. Dog and Robot share the same feeling—a soothing sense of contentment, that they can live this way for the rest of their lives.

I realise this might make me sound insane, writing softly and from the heart about what is ostensibly a family film about a walking animal and a cartoon robot, but this framing cleverly widens the scope of what love encompasses, with the film potently showcasing what affection looks like when sexuality isn’t a factor. Sometimes, a fleshy snog just isn’t as romantic as a held hand, is all I’m saying.

The first 20 minutes of Robot Dreams may convince you that you’re watching a love-tinted hangout film (it’d be a fun time if it was just that). However, a sudden plot turn steers the story into a profoundly different direction, one that tests the pair’s bond when circumstances beyond their control keep them apart.

While Robot Dreams never stops indulging in the enjoyable silliness of its world, the film also never strays from the seriousness of the situation it creates. They’re two tough weights to balance, but Berger never lets the narrative wobble one way or the other, always finding what’s fun about this take on NYC while digging deeper into Dog and Robot’s dilemma as time marches onward. Alfonso de Vilallonga’s wonderfully jazzy piano score keeps the film’s gentle tone in check while an inspired use of split-screen near the end finds a way to flood all the pent-up emotions into one sequence.

A meaningful and soul-lifting delight, it’s easy to see how Robot Dreams found itself in good company in the race for Best Animated Feature Film. However, out of all the films listed at the 2024 Academy Awards, its best compared to Celine Song’s Best Picture nominee Past Lives. That sounds unlikely until you look at the facts: both films are set in New York, they look back at a bygone era, rely on nuanced performances, examine a relationship tested by time, and find something profound to say about the nature of love.

And if you doubt the facts, you almost certainly won’t doubt the feelings of romantic reminiscence conjured by a double feature of Robot Dreams and Past Lives. In saying that, you’re likely to bring your kid to only one of these films, and that same kid is going to wonder why you’re staring off into the distance deep in memories while the credits are rolling.