Monday, March 25, 2024

Film Microreview: Robot Dreams

It shouldn't be possible for such measured, minimal forms to contain all this wealth of feelings

Of the five candidates for the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2024, Robot Dreams is the most visually modest. Without the energetic wildness of Nimona, the boundary-pushing experimentation of Across the Spider-Verse, or the meticulous virtuosity of award winner The Boy and the Heron, Robot Dreams tells an intimate story of loneliness, bliss, grief, and reconstruction that stays faithful to a specific moment in New York history while expressing an emotional journey so universal that it doesn't even need dialogues. The characters' intentions, inner states, conflicts, doubts, hopes, and moments of growth are communicated expertly by the happy confluence of a solid script and a team of animators in full control of their talents. The simple lines that represent a hand, a mouth or a pair of eyes carry out the fundamental task of keeping you in syntony with the content of a scene at all times. Against the fad of photorealism that seems to have taken over 3D animation, Robot Dreams succeeds by putting its trust in the effectiveness of clear lines and clear writing.

Let's set aside the conceits of a world populated by humanized animals and DIY robots. The essence of this story is in a random nobody who one day meets the perfect companion who can make his life finally feel less empty. The simple joy of having someone to walk the city with suffices to render him complete. You may read these scenes as a platonic friendship or as an allegory for queer sexuality; it makes no difference. What matters is that you can recognize the sweetness of their bond and the heartbreak of their separation. Within the story, this is expressed as the robot being unable to stand up and leave the beach because it's become rusty from seawater, but the circumstances that force the separation could have been anything. A particular situation that says a universal truth: that's the hallmark of great art. You have known what it's like to yearn for that moment of fully shared presence, and you have known what it's like to be torn in half by losing it. And you especially know what it's like to dream of all the ways you might reconnect one day.

The key detail here is that it's no one's fault that this relationship ends: there were no harsh words, no dishonesty, no malice. This was a gloriously pure case of non-toxic affection if there ever was one. It was perfect. But life happens. You get stuck in one place, you meet other people, you get used for selfish reasons, someone takes away a big part of you, you become the world to someone who one day just flies away, you get discarded, you get broken into pieces, you get put back together. Next thing you know, it doesn't make sense anymore to run back and search for what you had, no matter how beautiful and precious it was. And the reason you can't is that you're no longer the same person. You've made new memories, and of course they will never overwrite the old ones, but what you've experienced in the meantime has taken you to a different place. And for all you know, it could be another beautiful place worth exploring.

And again, the wonderful thing about Robot Dreams is that these complicated, bittersweet concepts are defined, presented and analyzed without speaking one word. If there is magic in the craft of animation, it's this: that a bundle of lines can make us think of a living person, and merely by watching those lines change we can know all there is to know about that person. And if you're in the hands of true masters of the art, that imaginary person can reveal to you a vital secret about yourself.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.