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Marona's Fantastic Tale (2019)

Anca Damian is a name to remember.

With several films behind her, the Romanian director has already earned her fair share of attention, and even some awards, throughout Europe. Her first animated feature, Crulic - The Path to Beyond (2011), won the Cristal Award at Annecy, and the film’s follow-up title, Magic Mountain (2015), claimed eleven international prizes. Damian’s latest oeuvre, Marona’s Fantastic Tale, has also snagged its fair share of acclaim, winning the European Film Award for Best Animated Feature and Romania’s Gopo Award for Best Feature Film in 2019. The first Damian film distributed by GKIDS, Marona’s Fantastic Tale might become the most visible work in the director’s collection. Ask anyone who has watched this gem, and there is no question why it is so celebrated.

Released in 2019, Marona’s Fantastic Tale follows its titular canine, Marona, as she braves the human world. Abandoned as a pup, Marona travels from one home to the next, selflessly serving each of her owners through thick and thin. She begins with Manole, a talented but starving acrobat who is struggling to find his big break. Manole meets Marona by chance, buying her off a stranger who approaches him in a bar. While kind to his newfound pet, the aspiring star feels torn when an entertainment scout offers him a job, explaining that the offer only stands if Marona stays behind. Manole refuses the job, but the lost opportunity is too much for him to bear, and he falls into a depression. Marona knows that she is the only thing standing between Manole and his dreams. Hoping to help him, she runs away, forfeiting her safety for his career as she, once again, walks the streets alone.

Marona’s second owner, Istvan, finds her in a trash pile. The burly dump truck driver takes a liking to Marona but, wary of problems at home, hesitates to keep her. Sadly, his fears prove to be true. Istvan initially gives Marona to his mother, but the elderly woman is too frail to manage a dog, forcing him to take Marona home to his wife. While at first welcoming, the woman’s selfishness gets the best of her, and she demands that Istvan throw the dog out. Unable to balance his love for Marona with the wants of his spouse, Istvan eventually gives in to the pressure, abandoning Marona outside after a game of catch. Later, a young girl named Solange finds Marona and brings her home. Though Solange’s mother swears against taking in more pets, she, too, softens to the pup with time, and Marona spends the rest of her days as part of the family.

Author C.J. Frick once said, “Be the person your dog thinks you are.” While Damian never cited Frick as an inspiration, her film is a visual testament to his proverb, employing a style that captures the pure, albeit naive, psychology of dogs. Marona sees the best in people. The playful, kaleidoscopic animation of her world does not reflect its material appearance but, rather, how Marona views those within it. To some, Manole is a penniless wannabe--but to Marona, he is a master creative, his tall, shape-shifting form defying physics as he scales buildings and spirals through space. To some, Istvan is a loser garbageman--but to Marona, he is a modern-day Sampson, stunningly handsome and able to crush trash with his bare hands. To some, Solange’s mother is a world-worn, single parent--but to Marona, she is a benevolent Gorgon, her long, lifelike hair able to command the house at one moment and soothe a crying child the next.

The animation of this film is its selling point; there is nothing else like it. If the metaphorical brilliance of Damian’s style does not please viewers, then its sheer diversity will. From cutouts and pencil drawings to 3D models and traditional, 2D animation, this film employs almost every sub-medium imaginable. Scenes featuring Manole are especially vivid, and one cannot help wonder, given their subjectivity, if the young acrobat holds a deeper place in Marona’s heart. Indeed, the intensity of Damian’s animation follows a slow decline, dropping just as Marona passes from Manole to Istvan and from Istvan to Solange. While the pup remains faithful to all her owners, her subtle loss of energy highlights just how much she loved the first two. When they leave, they take a piece of her with them. 



There are plenty of dog stories in the world--too many, even, for Marona’s tale to stand out. What this film lacks in plot, however, it more than compensates for in form. Damian works with intent; she does not use animation for its own sake but to make her story as immersive as possible. This technique also functions as a teaching tool. By seeing the film through Marona’s eyes, viewers can better understand the message she sends. In a world full of such goodness and color, it is hard to be unhappy. Manole, Istvan, and Solange might disagree, but Damian’s point-of-view narrative shows us the truth. This film is about one idea: mindfulness. Blind to the beauty both within and around them, Marona’s owners are always after “the next best thing”; their pessimism makes them insatiable. Had Manole been more mindful--both of his friend, Marona, and of the joy his solo act brought people--perhaps he would have chased dreams less vain. Had Istvan been more mindful of his own strength, perhaps he would have left his selfish wife. The list goes on and on, but at its core is the same, simple message--one that all of us would do well to remember.

All said, Marona’s Fantastic Tale is a worthy watch. In a world that tends to infantilize animation, this film proves that the medium can equal, and at times surpass, live-action footage. Damian may be new to the American scene, but the growing impetus of her work suggests she is not leaving anytime soon. Time will tell what she has in store for us next.