Producers: Pablo Berger, Ibon Cormenzana, Ignasi Estape, Sandra Tapia, Jerome Vidal and Sylvie Pialat   Director: Pablo Berger   Screenplay: Pablo Berger   Distributor: Neon

Grade: B

Based on a 2007 graphic novel for children by Sara Varon (which takes its title from a 1986 short story by Isaac Asimov but couldn’t be more different in tone), Spanish writer-director Pablo Berger’s “Robot Dreams” is a lovely but bittersweet story about loneliness and the search for friendship.  By turns amusing and melancholy, it shares with Berger’s best-known previous film, “Blancanieves” (2012), a distinctive voice; but while the earlier picture was a live-action, black-and-white, silent rethinking of “Snow White,” this one is a dialogue-free but music-filled tale in simple 2D color animation that also melds whimsy and seriousness in a strangely moving fantasy that should enchant sensitive viewers across the age spectrum. 

It’s set in the 1980s in a New York City that’s been reimagined as a sort of Zootopia, where various species of anthropomorphic animals live in peaceful proximity.  Our protagonist is Dog, who lives a solitary existence in an upper-floor apartment of an old building (the resident listing we glimpse at one point indicates that another flat is occupied by “Chicken and Cat,” though we never meet them).  He spends his time watching TV—as he channel-hops there are bits of MTV and a commercial for knives—or glancing across the way at apartments where folks are engaged in, shall we say, communal activity.  Occasionally he stops to heat up one of the many macaroni-and-cheese TV dinners in his fridge in the microwave.  He sighs over the emptiness of it all. 

Then an ad appears on the screen for a companion robot called the Amica 2000, and he immediately orders one.  A gruff delivery man appears with the box a few days later, and Dog goes to work assembling the device while a gaggle of pigeons observe from the window.  Once finished, the robot looks something like Bender from “Futurama,” but its personality is much more agreeable; it doesn’t speak (nor does Dog, or any of the other animals), but it smiles and whistles—most notably Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” which is featured in exuberant numbers in which Dog and Robot dance or roller-skate together. It becomes “their song,” just one element of the joyous score by Alfonso de Vilallonga, but a particularly important one.

After enjoying the city together, the two take the train to Ocean Beach for a final summer frolic, but a dip in the water rusts Robot up after he lies down on his towel on the sand, and when time comes to leave for home, he can’t move.  Dog isn’t strong enough to drag him, so they agree that Dog will come back the following day with a toolbox.  Unfortunately, when he returns he finds the boardwalk closed for the season, and is arrested when he tries to break in; his efforts to gain special dispensation to enter prove fruitless.  Disconsolate, he posts a note reminding himself of the date in the following June when the beach will reopen.

From here the film splits into two parts, shifting back and forth episodically between the months Dog and Robot spend apart, to both of which the title applies.  Dog dreams of his absent friend while trying to celebrate Halloween, dressed as a vampire while handing out candy.  But he also seeks new buddies, following a snowman to a bowling alley where they play a game and signing up for a ski vacation in the Catskills, where he has an unhappy experience with what appear to be a pair of nasty anteaters.  He has better luck when an attempt to fly a kite introduces him to Duck, an outdoorsy type with whom he goes fishing.  But she suddenly moves to Europe, leaving him morose.

Meanwhile inert Robot has experiences, both bad (having a leg broken off by a passing boatful of rabbits, whom he first imagines freeing him with an infusion of oil) and good (like sheltering a bird and her nest until her offspring fly away).  But mostly he dreams—of being replaced in Dog’s affections, of being liberated from the ice that’s covered him to walk a yellow brick road toward the Emerald City of New York, surrounded by an army of dancing sunflowers. Fernando Franco’s editing deliberately obscures distinctions between illusion and reality throughout these sequences, cheekily adding to the mood.  But he actually remains trapped until a rat with a metal detector unearths him and takes him to a junkyard where the owner, an alligator, chucks his dismembered parts into a trash pile. 

Dog rushes back to the beach on opening day, but finds only Robot’s leg, discarded by the rabbits.  Tossed out because of his obsessive digging, he eventually admits defeat and purchases a new companion bot called Tin, a floor model on sale at Robot Shack; this time he coats him with oil at the beach to keep him from rusting.  Meanwhile a raccoon named Rascal collects the pieces of Robot from the junkyard and, an inveterate tinkerer, rebuilds him, replacing his leg and using a boombox for his torso, and they’re become happy roommates. 

But while Robot and Rascal are barbequing on the roof of their building, Robot spies Dog and Tin walking by, and remembers; what follows is another of his dreams, capped by a reprise of “September” that points back to an old friendship while celebrating new ones.  It’s an ending different from what some viewers might expect—and want.  But its mixture of regret, resignation and hope seems utterly right.

In visual terms the picture is not a spectacular.  The character design, imported from the book by Daniel Fernandez, is charming but simple, and the animation supervised by Benoit Feroumont, along with Jose Luis Agreda’s art direction, are evocative but relatively plain.  (The repeated appearance of the Twin Towers adds a note of poignancy to the urban background.)  Of special note is Fabiola Orgoyo’s sound design, which adds nuance to the images in the form of the grunts and whispers of passersby, the fluttering of birds’ wings, the shouts of beachgoers and the like.

At a time when most animated films beat viewers over the head with raucous action and noise, “Robot Dreams” offers a welcome respite—a delightful, touching parable of how connection is still possible in a world where a feeling of isolation has become increasingly pervasive.  Of course, it also posits a benign robotic AI, while Asimov’s “Dreams” went in a very different direction.