The title “Marona’s Fantastic Tale” promises a fantasy or fable, packed with dream visions, eccentric characters and world-changing events. But while this animated film from director Anna Damian delivers all that and more, nothing that happens in it would seem extraordinary if you were describing it to a friend. It’s about the chaotic life of a pet—a mixed breed dog who calls herself a “mutt”—and there isn’t a single thing in it that couldn’t happen.
But because Damian and her collaborators tell this story subjectively, through first-person narration and images that shift and warp and pulse according to the dog’s perceptions, you arrive at the very end of “Marona’s Fantastic Tale” realizing that you haven’t just been taken on a journey, but made to appreciate it in ways you wouldn’t have if it were told conventionally. This movie appreciates the difficulties animals must have navigating a world dominated by humans. And it asks viewers to appreciate what’s important to a dog, and how mammals with short life spans might perceive time, relationships, and memory.
None of this stuff is on the minds of most other animated movies about pets, except in a lighthearted and superficial way, because the instant a storyteller takes a dog’s life as seriously as a human’s, and thinks about them as independent beings rather than an extension of their owners (or companions), it ceases to be escapism and becomes a psychological drama, which is what “Marona’s Fantastic Tale” really is (though it’s very funny and often exciting, too). Films about dogs, cats and other household animals tend to labor to convince us their main characters are just people in animal costumes—often wisecracking ones with celebrity voices. Sometimes they give them office jobs and gendered clothes and human responsibilities, and have them make jokes about pop stars and presidents and mortgages and school admissions, because that’s the joke, ha ha.
It’s important to know before queuing up this film for a birthday party that even though “Marona’s Fantastic Tale” is an animated picture about a lovable dog, and is designed and directed with dazzling showmanship and anchored in compassion, it’s not a film you can show to small children without first gauging whether they’re patient, open-minded and mature enough to make sense of it. Marona is a bit like the doggie cousin of a character from an early Terrence Malick movie like “Badlands” or “Days of Heaven,” striving through her narration to make sense of a world she can’t fully understand, and gradually piecing together a philosophy of life despite the gaps in her perception and the limits of her ability to perceive the totality of what’s happening around her. “Dogs can smell when something bad is brewing, when our human has a heavy conscience,” she confides in us, when one of her owners is clearly contemplating handing her off to someone else.
And—this is important, and not a spoiler, as Damian establishes this in the very first scene—the entire story is a deathbed flashback, recounted at the moment that Marona dies after being hit by a car. This is something that we all know happens to dogs all the time, but most animated films don’t dare show it, out of fear that it would traumatize children and make their parents demand a refund and post angry reviews on Amazon. It’s far more likely that a film will tantalize us with the possibility that an animal will die on a road and then reveal at the last minute that it lived, and maybe show it commiserating with its animal pals while limping along on an adorable little crutch.
Not this movie, though. Marona’s not a gory or even particuarly blunt demise. In fact, the filmmakers go out of their way to cushion the blow, by telling us right away that this is how Marona dies, then backing up to tell us her life story, including he early experiences with her mother, father, and eight siblings, her various owners, only one of whom is really a dog person, unfortunately, and some of whom are petty, neglectful, and mean. Her first owner is an acrobat who is drawn as an impossibly long, slender being defined by wavy, elastic lines. Her second owner is a big, deep-voiced delivery truck driver who loves her but is more enamored with and loyal to his girlfriend, a petty, vain woman who thinks of Marona primarily as a lifestyle accessory and is jealous of the attention her boyfriend bestows on his pet. And there’s the deliveryman’s elderly mother, who is sweet during the daytime but turns bitter and mean at night. Finally there’s a young girl who finds her in a park, takes her home to her mother and grandfather, and raises her until her death.
None of these human characters, including the “good” ones, are presented as entirely noble or selfless individuals, because their flaws are what make them, well, human. The closest thing to a purely good person is the girl’s mother, a harried single mom distracted by financial troubles and the responsibility of caring for her elderly and disabled father; she is literally overflowing with love, her long, red seeming to extend beyond her feet and wrap around her daughter like a superhero’s cape. Part of the point here is to encourage us to look at ourselves as the caretakers of pets, or the loved ones of humans who are caretakers of pets, then ask whether we set the kind of example that we ought to, or if we could try a bit harder, pay a bit more attention, think about something other than ourselves.
It all feels rather like a self-delivered eulogy or obituary by a person who lived a life that a historian or media outlet would not consider significant enough to acknowledge, but that meant a great deal to her and to the people she was close to. The movie falls within the cinematic tradition of stories narrated by people who have just died and are trying to make sense of their experience as their bodies transform from matter to energy.
The film is also demanding in terms of its style, tone, and choice of what to emphasize. This is not an American studio-type of production, with three-dimensional-looking, realistically shaded animation, visual grammar that mimics live action Hollywood blockbusters, a soundtrack of brash, Broadway-ready original songs or needle-drop pop tunes, and dialogue packed with references and slang that might’ve seemed up-to-the-minute when the project was green-lit five years earlier. “Marona’s Fantastic Tale” unfolds according to its own logic and intuition, and demands a great deal of viewers (adults as well as kids), starting with a very basic request that viewers get their minds around the fact that life is finite and ends in death, and you don’t get to choose the time, place, and circumstances.
If you read that last sentence and thought, “That sounds French,” well, yes, absolutely: this is a French-Romanian coproduction, and while it might seem like overdoing it to call the film existential, it absolutely fits. This is a movie about existence, about the ordinary yet often wrenching truth of what it means to live, age, and die, leaving a legacy of love and regret, if not necessarily children or achievements. When you hear the phrase “a dog’s life” it is often dismissive or smug, as in, “I wouldn’t wish that kind of life on a dog.” What does that say about the value that humanity actually places on dogs, though? A dog’s life and a human’s are equally valuable to the creature who’s living it. The dog is just shorter and doesn’t live as long, and can’t operate a doorknob.
“Finally,” Marona says, snuggling into the home of caretakers who actually take care of her, “humans who understand what it means to be a canine.” Finally, too, a cartoon that appreciates dogs as dogs, and treats one dog’s life with the gravity and compassion we’d want expressed at a memorial service for a human of no importance who meant everything.
Available in virtual cinemas today, 6/12.