Already struggling with being abandoned by her country music star mom, 12 year old Minna (voiced by Emilie Kroyer Koppel) is even more upset when dad John (Rasmus Botoft) brings home new wife Helene (Ditte Hansen) along with the latter's stroppy social-media addicted daughter Jenny (Caroline Vedel). While asleep one night Minna stumbles into the realm of dreams. Here strange blue creatures literally build people’s dreams. Gaff (Martin Buch), Minna’s own assigned 'dreambuilder', shows her how they go about doing so. Upon discovering she can tamper with her own family's dreams, Minna rashly messes with Jenny’s subconscious in order to make her a more amiable stepsister. Inevitably the plan goes awry, endangering Jenny's life along with the family's future unless Minna finds a way to set things right.
Given dreams are the root of many childhood fantasies it is strange the subject matter has been largely the purview of horror movies rather than family films. Some might recall Nineties British animation The Dreamstone with its beguiling Mike Batt-composed theme tune, but where that went the fantasy adventure route the Danish-made Dreambuilders deals with more grounded, emotionally complex themes as a sort of merger of Inside Out (2015) and My Life as a Courgette (2016) by way of Dr. Seuss. Co-written by animator Kim Hagen Jensen with Soren Grinderslev Hansen the script tries to explore the fragile psychology of children dealing with the aftermath of divorce or outright parental abandonment. Here Minna uses hurt feelings as an excuse to psychologically manipulate Jenny. Much the same as Jenny reacts to a dad being disinterested in her by lashing out at everyone including Minna's amusingly named pet hamster Viggo Mortensen. Dealing as it does with largely relatable anxieties Dreambuilders instantly engages and for the most part holds our attention even if its chaotic narrative often gets too enamoured with wacky shenanigans that go nowhere. It speaks to the quality of the writing and the voice acting of Emilie Kroyer Koppel (and Robyn Dempsey in the English dub) that Minna remains sympathetic despite some questionable actions.
Like the earlier Danish animated feature Help! I'm a Fish (2000) Dreambuilders has some audacious story ideas and visual imagination. The animators give the film a magical glow envisioning a dreamscape of cotton candy clouds against a vanilla ice cream sky where, in an idea admittedly lifted from Inside Out, the dreambuilders operate exactly like a movie studio with actors, directors, props and crew. Compared with the striking backdrops though the creature designs are bland and uninspired. Similarly the human characters, with the exception of Minna (and that is mostly due to the writing and acting) lack the expressiveness needed to match an otherwise ambitious script. Once events take a darker turn with Minna journeying deeper inside the land of dreams to save an imperiled Jenny, the film's emotionally complexity kicks up a notch. It transforms from fanciful comedy into a cathartic odyssey that helps both girls air out all their mutual anxieties bringing together two kids struggling with unrequited love for selfish parents. That note of poignancy elevates an otherwise pedestrian fantasy.