The first moments of Marona’s Fantastic Tale set up the movie for heartbreak. The latest animated film from New York distribution house GKids is told by a small dog named Marona as she dies, lying on the street after being hit by a car. She thinks back to the first moments of her existence — and before that, as she describes the first meeting between her parents, a purebred and a mutt. And she considers her many owners, and how each of them became something different to her.
Romanian director Anca Damian weaves a beautifully poignant story of a little dog and the humans she loves. With a rich visual language that demands every ounce of attention, Marona’s Fantastic Tale is a heartwarming, heartbreaking journey that lingers afterward.
Marona is only known as “Nine” at first, since she’s the ninth puppy in her litter. As she encounters different masters, her entire view of the world shifts to take her new human into account. Damian creates dynamic visual representations of a dog’s dedication, pets might see human masters as their whole world. Her first owner, an acrobat, is represented by long, windy strings across an elastic body. He brings her to his tiny apartment, which enraptures Marona until it begins to expand into a whole universe for her. The surroundings warp into a stunning spacescape full of stars and floating planets, with Manole the acrobat at the center of it all.
Each owner and living situation shifts the visuals of Marona’s world. Her next owner, Istvan, who works in construction, is broad and solid compared to the windy Manole, and is able to crush junkyard debris with his bare hands. His elderly mother is made up of folds and folds of wrinkles, while his conniving wife twists herself around him, batting her black, beady eyes. Of course, none of this is literal, but the way Damian renders each character conveys how Marona interprets their personalities and how they relate back to her.
Marona’s Fantastic Tale demands attention to each frame of the stunning illustrations. Marona makes her way through dark city alleyways, full of figures rendered with just a few choice shapes. She travels through a construction site made of bold, clear lines and squares, and a lush park full of warm colors, where she meets her last owner, a little girl named Solange. Unlike other humans, Solange can actually understand Marona, and reply to her, to some extent. Her openness speaks to the childlike innocence Solange has during their initial meeting — which slowly disappears as she grows into a surly teenager.
Visually, Marona’s Fantastic Tale is stunning and warm. Narratively, it’s full of particularly evocative lines that heighten the already-rich visuals. In the very beginning, when Marona is just a nameless puppy, she compares happiness to the number nine, the taste of milk, and a big wet tongue. Later, when she plays fetch with Istvan one last time before he gives her away, she notes, “After a while, you can smell last times. They smell like rust. Rotten leaves.”
These scent descriptions for otherwise intangible concepts, and the tactile qualities of the animation Damian designs to accompany the narration, all combine to enrich the senses beyond sights and sounds. The entire movie feels like a glorious exploration of subjective sensation. Look away, and you’ll miss another small detail that adds to the vibrant story.
Marona’s journey has moments of joy and pain, though these feelings become intermingled, in both sweeping, drastic ways and quieter ones. She leaves Manole out of devotion, because looking after her is blocking his dreams of joining a circus. When Solange and her family take Marona in, she’s happy to be in a household that loves her, but even though everyone in that family cares for one another, misunderstandings still stem from Solange slowly growing up. Marona experiences the happiness and love of humans who care about her, but also the heartache that comes with the times when they can no longer keep her in their lives. She can’t find a home completely free of strife, but her journey evokes a complicated happiness that feels realistic, in spite of the abstracted animated visuals.
Marona’s life is not entirely happy, but it’s not bereft of joy and love. The movie’s gorgeous visuals emphasize that all the moments of her life — heartwarming, heartbreaking, and everything between — are woven together in a rich tapestry. Like its title promises, Marona’s tale is a fantastic one, and it’s well worth embarking on its sensual journey, even knowing from the film’s first moments that the ending won’t be a happy one.
Marona’s Fantastic Tale is available to stream from local theaters via VirtualCinema.
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