Friday, May 31, 2024

Robot Dreams, the Animated Oscar Nominee

This alternate 1980s New York is populated by animals and a few robots. It must be during the animal-Koch years rather than the animal-Dinkins years, because “Dog V.” is relatively unconcerned about crime. He is just lonely. That is why he orders a mechanical companion in Pablo Berger’s Oscar-nominated animated feature Robot Dreams, adapted from Sara Varon’s graphic novel, which opens today in New York.

Instead of Ginsu knives, Dog orders a robot from a late-night TV commercial. Once he struggles through the assembly, they get on famously. They are in-synch roller-skating in Central Park like kids from
Fame. It is the same at the beach, at least until Robot starts malfunctioning. It is late in the day, so scrawny Dog is forced to leave him on the beach. The next day, the city has chained off the beach for the off-season. Repeatedly, the City Parks Department refuses his access requests, leaving Robot marooned with his increasingly fanciful thoughts.

It is rather ambiguous whether Dog and Robot’s relationship is one of friendship or animal-robotic love, but whatever it is, it was cruelly severed by the New York municipal government. New York’s bureaucratic incompetence and indifference is an eternal constant, but the early 1980s vibe is surprisingly wistful. Berger shows viewers the Twin Towers early and often. The attention to detail is impressive, including real life local landmarks like the El Quijote in Chelsea.

Admittedly, this is an animated fable, but Dog’s passivity is excruciatingly annoying. Would you let a chain-link fence stand between you and the special someone you love (or whatever), especially when New York has plenty of piers, where boats are kept?

Still, the gentle sadness of
Robot Dreams is quite distinctive. Berger has a talent for making films without dialogue, having previous helmed the neo-retro-silent film Blancanieves. In this case, Robot Dreams is not strictly silent. There are plenty of ambient street noises. Alfonso de Vilallonga also composed a peppy jazz-influenced score that uses Earth Wind & Fire’s “September” as a motif. It often sounds inspired by Dave Grusin and David Benoit. Perhaps there might also be an intentional echo of Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” in Robot’s mournful whistling.

The colors are vibrant and the vintage New York backdrops are richly detailed. It all looks very New York, but how New York are its major characters? Regardless, just about any New Yorker can relate to its combination of good jazz and bad government. The constant parade of new species of fresh New Yorker animal species is also a dependable source of childlike entertainment. Recommended for its sights and sounds more than the somewhat thin symbolism-laden narrative,
Robot Dreams opens today (5/31) in New York, at the AMC Lincoln Square.