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Inside Robot Dreams, the Oscars’ surprise Best Animated Feature nominee

Most people haven’t heard about this movie yet — here’s why

An image of an anthropomorphic cartoon dog carrying a briefcase, smiling and holding hands with a tall, gangly robot, as they walk through the streets of the East Village in New York City in the animated feature Robot Dreams Image: Neon

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Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

Every new batch of Academy Awards nominations comes with a few surprises. Film fans get up in arms over some of them, but others just prompt a mild “Huh, I haven’t heard of that movie, when did that come out?”

For a lot of us, that was the case with Robot Dreams, a nominee for Best Animated Feature that edged out seemingly more likely candidates like The Super Mario Bros. Movie (the second biggest box office hit of 2023) and the visually innovative Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. Even for dedicated animation fans, Robot Dreams’ nomination was a bit out of left field — but that’s because few people in America have had the chance to see the movie yet.

Robot Dreams is a Spanish-French co-production that adapts Sara Varon’s 2016 children’s graphic novel of the same title. The movie is completely dialogue-free, though, and it’s set in New York City; much of it takes place in a very recognizable and specific version of the East Village neighborhood, and the characters visit landmarks like the Strand Bookstore and Ocean Beach. It premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, and it went on to play a variety of other festivals around the world before opening in Spain and France in December 2023.

How can you watch Robot Dreams?

Neon has the American distribution rights for Robot Dreams, and the trailer that was released in early January promised the film is “coming soon.” But no dates have been announced yet, and it’s unclear at the moment whether it’ll be a theatrical or streaming release. The “Oscar bump,” whereby a nomination can boost the prospects of smaller films (though less than it did when a lot more people engaged with the Oscars), might help the film earn a theatrical release if one wasn’t planned already.

Neon’s films — most recently including Ferrari, The Royal Hotel, Origin, and Anatomy of a Fall — rarely skip theatrical release, though, so it’s a safe bet Robot Dreams will be at multiplexes and arthouses before it hits streaming. Polygon has reached out to the movie’s publicity arm to see what they can share about the movie’s release plans, and we’ll update when we have more.

Could Robot Dreams win the Best Animated Feature Oscar?

An anthropomorphic cartoon dog sits in a photo booth with a tall, gangly robot, holds up bunny ears over its head, and sticks his tongue out for the camera in the animated feature Robot Dreams Image: Neon

Frankly, that’s unlikely, in a year where Hayao Miyazaki’s possibly career-capping masterpiece The Boy and the Heron is one of the nominees. It’s also up against the visually astounding, boundary-pushing Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. One of those two is far more likely to win. Sorry to the other nominees, Pixar’s Elemental and Netflix’s Nimona, but it’s true. All four of those movies are bigger, splashier, more visually dynamic, and more thrilling than Robot Dreams.

But Robot Dreams is still a deeply enjoyable movie. It’s packed with close, specific detail, from the New York City environment to the packaging and texture of familiar products, from Froot Loops to Cheetos. It’s a whimsical, mildly melancholy movie, centering on the relationship between a robot and a lonely anthropomorphic dog in a city full of animal-people (who lightly resemble characters from Bojack Horseman, with less chatter and less self-hatred). It’s an accessible, relatable story about everyone’s need for emotional connection, but it gets surreal at times as the reason for the title becomes clear, both in the robot’s dreams and the dog’s dreams about the robot. It’s well worth watching — once you can.

Update: Neon’s press department confirms that Robot Dreams will have its American theatrical release in 2024. This post will be updated when we have more specific information.