How Robot Dreams Nabbed a Surprise Oscar Nom

One of the biggest — and, quite honestly, best — surprises on Oscar nomination morning was “Robot Dreams” nabbing a Best Animated Feature nomination over much buzzier, more promoted films like Disney’s “Wish” and Paramount’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.” For the Spanish film that marked the animated-feature debut of “Blancanieves” and “Abracadabra” director Pablo Berger, the dream came true.

Based on the graphic novel by Sara Varon, the film is a wordless meditation on friendship and sacrifice from the point of view of a lonely dog named DOG living in a stylized, animal-filled version of 1980s Manhattan. DOG sends away for a robot pal, and the ensuing friendship changes both of their lives forever — in the same way, perhaps, that an Academy Award nomination will change the lives of Berger and his team.

“When we got the news, we just screamed,” said Berger. “I have never screamed or jumped so much.” Berger added that the journey to being nominated was a long one for a film that premiered at Cannes last summer, where it was acquired by Neon. He said he read the trades, like TheWrap, that trumpeted that “Robot Dreams” could be an Oscar contender, but he was skeptical, given the number of amazing animated films this year.

“For us, the Oscars is the biggest film influence in the world,” Berger said. “As a director, the biggest award you can get is that more people got to see your film. And I know this nomination is going to make that happen.” He said in Spain, where the film is still playing, the box office jumped 120%. It ticked upwards in France, too. (“Robot Dreams” will be released in America this summer.)

“Robot Dreams” marks Berger’s first animated feature. He said that he picked up the graphic novel more than 10 years ago and returned to it as inspiration after making his last two live-action features. “I took out the book (and) when I got to the end, I was in tears,” Berger shared. “I said, ‘This is so powerful. If I want to tell the story, I have to make an animated film.’” And he did.

To pull off “Robot Dreams” — which is ambitious, wordless and in 2D — Berger recruited a team that included veterans of “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles,” “The Triplets of Belleville” and Cartoon Saloon’s “The Book of Kells.” “It was a combination of people that have no experience in animation and people with a lot of experience in animation,” Berger said. “That gave me confidence. I enjoyed the process enormously. It really was such a pleasure to make this film.”

And it’s just as much a pleasure to watch. The finished product speaks as a testament to the movie’s unexpected emotional heft that it can turn Earth, Wind & Fire’s perennial wedding jam “September” into a rueful rumination on friendship, memory and loss. Berger said that the song, which you’ll never hear the same way again, was a part of the movie from early on. “The film takes place from September to September, so I knew I needed a song for them and a song that they could roller dance in Central Park to,” Berger said. “It had to be funky. The song was perfect.”

He said it became even more perfect when he started looking at the lyrics more closely — Do you remember / the 21st night of September? “My head exploded because I didn’t realize that this song was meant to be the main theme of ‘Robot Dreams.’ The film talks about memory, talks about how memory helps us to recover from loss,” Berger said. The song plays throughout the movie, in various versions, but they couldn’t get the song for the closing credits. It was too expensive. Some dreams are pricier than others.

A version of this story first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Down to the Wire, TheWrap Magazine - February 20, 2024
Illustration by Rui Ricardo for TheWrap


Leave a Comment