By Leah McDonald / November 25th, 2020
Animation is a potent tool for storytelling. Live action film captures the world around us, but animation excels in the fantastic, bending reality in ways traditional movie-making cannot. It paints for us a world of living, breathing emotion, imbuing stories with an added oomph that grasps our senses and doesn’t let go. Marona’s Fantastic Tale uses this expertly to draw the viewer into the world of one lonely dog to share with them her small moments of happiness.
Created and directed by Anca Damian, with screenplay by Anghel Damian and produced by Brecht Evens, this French film follows the titular Marona as she recounts the movie of her life after being hit by a car. Right off the bat the film goes for the heartstrings, not unlike the Ghibli classic Grave of the Fireflies, and even though it’s a shorthanded way of investing you in her story, it also helps reinforce the driving theme of the movie: Happiness is small and fleeting, and you should grasp it and cherish it as hard as you can before it’s gone. As this review will contain spoilers for the movie’s events, for those who would like to experience the film for themselves, the bottom line is this: Marona’s Fantastic Tale is a wonderfully animated, emotionally poignant look at the ways in which humans affect the lives of animals, both positively and negatively; the unconditional love pets afford their owners; and how our worlds intersect in ways we may not consider.
Marona is the ninth pup of a litter born from a pampered street dog mother and a “racist” pure breed father, as she explains. Love, it would seem, didn’t care about where either of her parents came from. Unfortunately for Marona, her life with both her mother and father is short-lived, and she’s thrust into a world of meetings and partings, of new names and new faces, of heartbreak and yearning and the smallest, most fleeting moments of happiness.
Early on, the animation helps punctuate each of these moments, with the world warping and twisting as the young Marona must navigate the unfamiliar. Her first human, Manole, is a mercurial spirit, prone to poetry and dreaming, perfectly captured in the animation through constant movement, his limbs and clothing twisting, elongating, and sloughing off as he moves effortlessly through the landscape. An acrobat by trade, he ropes Marona (whom he names Ana) into his act, the two forming a strong bond despite their thin circumstances. For her, happiness is simple: It’s a soft bed, a ball to play with, and her human. But for Manole, happiness is a constant game of chase, and when it eventually comes down to picking between her or his career, Marona makes the choice for him and leaves. You can see how this choice effects the acrobat when, during a nice moment later in the movie, you see a Wanted poster for Ana, because despite his desires, Manole still loved his dear dog.
Her next human is the exact opposite of Manole in both character and his animation. Ishtvan is a larger than life gentle giant who towers over the world, his stocky frame often struggling to navigate a world for which is was not built. Broad shouldered, he is quiet and serious and burdened to despair by his responsibilities, but proves a steady presence who gives Marona (whom he names Sara) a home. At first it’s with his aging mother, but her bouts of dementia lead to Marona suffering a terrible injury, and Ishtvan eventually takes the dog home with him to his wife, a vulture of a woman who feeds off Ishtvan’s kindness and constantly chases after the newest, trendiest topic. Despite supposedly hating dogs, she claims she loves Marona, only to eventually grow bored and abusive toward the pup. Once again, Marona’s human is forced to choose between her and the world. Marona’s last moments with him are chasing a ball in the park, a small salve of happiness before she is once again left to fend for herself.
Marona’s final family is with a young girl named Solange, her single mother Medeea, and her stern grandfather. Found one day in the woods, the young Solange spirits Marona back home, in the manner of all precocious children, and begs to let the dog stay. After some argument, it’s agreed she can. Of all her humans, Solange and her family look the most realistic, steady and familiar in a world that has been mostly abstract so far. There are still moments where the animation does amazing work to help portray these characters in ways that go beyond their dialogue. My favorite is Medeea’s hair. The haggard mother generally keeps it up in a severe bun, but when she lets herself relax, the hair comes down in literal waves, often enveloping Marona in its softness. The grandfather is always portrayed in stark greys despite his colorful family, but for all his gruff demeanor, he still treats Marona with dignity (even if he can’t remember her name). I love the dynamic of Marona with Solange’s family, especially with the grandfather and Medeea, as both only show their softer sides around the pup in very different, but also familiar, ways. We’ve all known the strict person who lets herself go around animals, or the outwardly aloof and uncaring one who still makes room in his heart for a creature weaker than himself.
As I mentioned before, animation has a way of bringing to life the fantastic, and Marona’s Fantastic Tale definitely benefits from the format. The fluidity of the animation, coupled with the surreal imagery and vibrant color palette, really help drive home how different Marona’s world is from ours. Still screens do not do this movie justice. It is beautiful in motion and when coupled with an amazing score by Pablo Pico, offers a particularly moving experience for those who have had pets of their own. I’ve always been a sucker for animal films, but this one touched a particular nerve and I constantly find myself thinking about it and reflecting on the nature of humans, animals, and the ways in which we effect one another. Though to be fair, this is a French film and I went in expecting to cry like a baby, and I was not disappointed.
I’ve written before about the powerful bond that can form between a pet and their human, and Marona’s Fantastic Tale delves deep into the concept. A dog’s life is defined – for better and for worse – by the humans with whom she lives. Will they love her? Accept her? Will they treat her kindly or discard her? Are the moments of happiness worth the heartbreak? Early in the film, Marona tells the audience two pieces of wisdom she learned from her mother: That dogs must learn the human language to understand their people, but that people do not need to learn a dog’s language; and that it was a kindness to give her puppies placeholder names because a dog’s name is given and discarded easily throughout her life. (As the ninth puppy of the litter, Marona was named Nine, and often falls back on that moniker in her lowest moments.) Unlike My Roommate is a Cat, the answers in Marona’s Fantastic Tale are not as life-affirming as the bond formed between Haru-chan and Subaru, but they are also raw and real and profound. Happiness is small and fleeting, but it can be found in even the darkest of places, and that darkness cannot take away the brightness and warmth of the best moments life has to offer. Humans are capricious and their happiness more demanding than a dog’s; humans struggle with choices a dog will never have to face, and those choices are not always in a pet’s favor. Despite this, Marona continues to love her humans and accept them unconditionally, and it’s a message I think us humans could take more strongly to heart when we interact with animals, pets or no. Our world is not theirs, but our world shapes the one in which they must live, and we should afford them as many moments of happiness as we can, because we never know when it will end.
Marona’s Fantastic Tale is distributed by GKIDS and available on Amazon Prime Video.
Reviewer copy provided by the publisher.
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