Thought the silent movie renaissance began and ended with The Artist? Wordless wonder Pablo Berger is here to make you think again.
The Spanish director has dug into Charlie Chaplin’s box of tricks to forge a gorgeous animation about friendship and connection – entirely without dialogue. Based on Sara Varon’s children’s graphic novel, visually as well as narratively, it’s set in the anthropomorphised, graffiti-strewn, Earth, Wind & Fire-fuelled ’80s New York, as if Saturday Night Fever had been invaded by the cast of Zootropolis.
Our hero is Dog, a lonely mutt who lives alone, sadly passing the time playing Pong and awaiting the ping of his microwave macaroni.
Enter Robot, a mail-order friendship droid that quickly changes Dog’s life via the power of companionship. The previously baleful pooch comes alive as he rollerskates through Central Park and wolfs hotdogs with his new pal. Then the pair take a Labor Day trip to the beach and find themselves separated by a bad case of rust, a locked fence and a gruff security guard. Suddenly, Dog has a different sort of loneliness to contend with.
If the animation style has a touch of the BoJacks, the story plays out a bit like super-loveable British buddy comedy Brian and Charles, where the A.I.-ness of the premise is almost beside the point. Like Charles Petrescu in that film, Robot is more game-for-anything kid than android, experiencing genuine joy and wonder with his new friend.
The visual gags embrace everything from Tati-esque slapstick to bonkers surrealism (the ten-pin-bowling snowman may haunt your dreams). Robot Dreams’ supporting cast of weird animal urbanites gives it all a kaleidoscopic backdrop that makes every joke a good 20 percent funnier. Special shout out to a pair of malevolent anteaters who enact slithery-tongued bastardry on Dog.
It’s as if Saturday Night Fever had been invaded by the cast of Zootropolis
While it’s definitely an all-ages animation, younger viewers may find the many dream sequences – one involving an incredible transition into The Wizard of Oz – a little brain-bending. (Or they may be a brilliant gateway into Alain Resnais and Last Year at Marienbad.)
And Berger doesn’t make concessions for the easily teary: Robot Dreams is a film as much about separation as togetherness. But while the final reel is a low-key heartbreaker, the bubble never pops on the loveliness of what came before.
With this and his 2012 black-and-white silent Blancanieves, Berger seems to be on a one-man mission to revive silent making. Godspeed to that quest if he continues to make movies as delightfully quirky, funny and moving as this.
Robot Dreams premiered at the London Film Festival.