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[Animation First 2020] Marona's Fantastic Tale Premiere and Q&A Event

Gino Balton Abello reports on the New York Premiere and accompanying Director's Q&A of Marona's Fantastic Tale, which took place at the Animation First Festival 2020.

The dog dies at the end.

This is not a spoiler as the dog and our protagonist, Marona (literally “brown” in French), actually dies at the very beginning. The latest film by prolific Romanian director Anca Damian (originally L’Extraordinaire Voyage de Marona) takes a cue from Isao Takahata’s The Grave of the Fireflies in that its story structure is bookended by the cruel death of its narrator and principal character. So I thought it best to warn you now, as Marona’s Fantastic Tale is expecting a May 2020 release courtesy of GKIDS and it is an absolute must-see for all ages.

The film follows the tumultuous and moving life of the titular Marona, a small mutt born from an unlikely union who becomes separated from her mother and siblings as a mere pup. Ninth in the litter, Marona has a brief meeting with her negligent pure-breed father only to become a young stray wandering through the streets of Paris. She brings us along through her self-reflective story and that of the three humans and homes that punctuated the periods of her life.

Before the screening started, Damian wanted to assure those of us in the audience that despite the events depicted in the film, the real-life Marona is still very much alive and well. She elaborated during the Q&A session that followed (moderated by Hsiang Chin Moe, Chair of BFA Animation at the School of Visual Arts) that her inspiration came from a personal encounter she had with a stray while walking her own dog back in 2014.

By her own admission, stray dogs are not an uncommon sight in her home country but this dog felt different to her. Big and brown, Marona had a beautiful way of empathizing with those around her and Damian took it upon herself to foster her. Marona now lives happily in her forever-home, growing old and grey. But the experience left Damian with a powerful emotion she wanted to share, that of the profound and wondrous power of relating to and understanding others, and it is this feeling that she carried throughout the making of the film.

Damian purposely segmented the film into three parts, reflecting the major stages of life which are represented by Marona’s relationships with each of her humans. First is a fabulous acrobat who dreams of being immortalized as one of the greatest in his craft. His high aspirations and high-flying performances evoke the limitless possibilities and starry-eyed potential of early childhood. His physical form is ever-changing and free. 

Then Marona finds herself in the care of a gentle giant of a man whose work in construction mirrors the newfound imposing structures that tend to mold, define, and challenge adolescence. He is square in frame and limited by his obligations to his family who impose rigid demands of him.

Finally, Marona is taken in by a dysfunctional family consisting of an overworked single mother, a crotchety grandfather, and a quirky young girl who butt heads with each other in their crowded Parisian apartment. Positioned against the harsh angles of their home, each member of the family struggles to fulfill their respective roles. As the years wind down and she matures into adulthood, Marona learns that happiness is in the small things and that life can only be lived in the here and now, and people can only be loved as they are.

Now you might be asking yourself why a dog named “brown” is depicted in black and white, and you wouldn’t be alone as a young child asked Damian the very same question during the Q&A. Film-Marona is highly stylized with wing-shaped ears, a heart-shaped nose, and a cloud-shaped tail. This was necessary to make her stand out visually as the film itself is also highly stylized and positively bursting with color and texture.

Marona continues the trend seen throughout this year’s Animation First festival of integrating 2D and 3D animation techniques together. Featuring charming cut-outs, intricate backgrounds, and imaginative layouts, Marona is a truly awe-inspiring kaleidoscope for the eyes. Every background character is wholly unique in appearance with strikingly memorable silhouettes. Individual animators were assigned to principal characters ala classic Disney and the result is an eclectic cast that each moves in a style all their own. The work on the acrobat, in particular, was a stand-out. I could have watched his undulating motions and loopy, noodling pinstripes for hours.

“Moderator Hsiang Chin Moe on the left with Director Anca Damian on the right, sitting under the closing credits.

According to Damian, when she approaches the art direction of her films she let the themes lead the story and the story lead the visual concept. She wanted to leave room for the story to develop and change so no freeze was put in place to lock in the story and animation production occurred alongside work on the rough and incomplete animatic, which is a highly unconventional production strategy.

The end product feels hand-made and folk-artsy. It’s no wonder Damian and her team decided against making Marona brown, she would have gotten lost in all the commotion. But it was important to Damian to keep the name, because she wanted the real-Marona to be honored for her part in making this story come to life. To preserve her forever and to share her spirit with the world.

Anca Damian

The first question of the Q&A came from a young boy who wanted to see the picture of the real Marona that Damian alluded to in her introduction, so curator Delphine Selles-Alvarez and the FIAF Florence Gould Hall technicians were kind enough to hold the picture at this moment.

The bottom line is that Marona is truly a remarkable film, one that opens the minds of children and adults alike to see the world just a bit differently. Life can be very difficult even for a dog. It’s full of disappointment and loneliness, fear and abandonment. But it is also quite a funny and joyful thing, filled with simple and blissful pleasures. As Damian so succinctly put it, “life is a paradox.” I was envious of the children in the audience with me for getting to experience something so special at such a young age. It is the kind of film I’d like to imagine will stay with them, like a dream you keep coming back to and wonder if it was imagined or real.

Marona's Fantastic Tale is due for release in the US this May by GKIDS Films, date and details TBC.