There is something rather charming about Dreambuilders, the new feature from Hydralab animation studio and director Kim Hagen Jensen. It is a shamelessly derivative patchwork of locations, character arcs and story beats borrowed from elsewhere but there is a sweetness about the film which inclines us to cut it some slack.
Minna and her father have built a happy life together, both a little bruised by the absence of Minna’s musician mum (Alberte Winding, lending her striking voice to the soundtrack too) who left many years before to follow her dreams. The two have fallen into familiar patterns which punctuate their days; they dance together in the kitchen to the sounds of a Mariachi band and play endless games of chess.
In her dreams, however, a more unsettled Minna (voiced, in the English dub, by Robyn Dempsey) is revealed. Change is coming to her cosy household and the big-hearted little girl fears the havoc it will wreak. Behind the scenes her dream-builder, Gaff (Luke Griffin), is concerned too; Minna’s carefully plotted dreams keep veering off-script and throwing the energy on set entirely out of whack.
In the world of Dreambuilders, dreams are elaborate theatrical productions staged by an industrious crew of steampunky bots and a plasticine alien director. Each night they craft a personalised performance for their dreamer, painstakingly conducted through a machine not dissimilar to a street organ before throwing a lever which awakens their audience of one safely back in the real world. When Minna gets a peek behind the scenes she is thoroughly enchanted to see that changing dreams changes minds.
Unfortunately, Minna’s real world has begun to fall apart. Her oblivious father (Tom Hale) sees nothing but good in growing their tightly bonded family unit into an uneasy foursome by throwing his partner Helene (Karen Ardiff) and her Insta-fixated daughter Jenny (Emma Jenkins) into the mix and insisting that Minna “put on her happy hat” and lump it. When Jenny tires of picture and mickey-taking and turns her spite-narrowed eyes onto Minna’s hamster sidekick Viggo Mortensen, Minna exploits her knowledge of the dreamworld to make some changes of her own…
One of Dreambuilders’ charms is in some of the details of its animation. Calling the movie, as a whole, Pixar-esque is perhaps pushing it (except in reference to the ‘borrowing’ from Inside Out) but it is undeniably picturesque with some really beautiful aesthetic flourishes. The wood grain in the repeated motif of chess pieces is very effective, as are the twinkly steampunk touches dotted throughout. The characters themselves are rather flat but in its dreamscapes – a field showered with cornflakes or a giant hamster dance number – Dreambuilders comes alive.
Søren Grinderslev Hansen’s screenplay is overly ambitious but well-meaning, treading territory familiar from Inside Out and the less cohesive Wonder Park yet searching for something new to say. And Dreambuilders comes close, it is emotionally intense for a children’s feature; looking unflinchingly at themes of abandonment, online bullying, blended families and jealousy. Regrettably, it lacks the vocabulary to offer any answers leaving a few outstanding issues which may need to be talked over with young viewers.
Ultimately, even a frenetic third act rescue mission cannot rescue Dreambuilders from the flaws in its storytelling and the lack of dimension of its characters. In the exasperated words of my 9-year-old co-reviewer, “The only one with any common sense was the hamster!” I couldn’t agree more.