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Review: ‘Marona’s Fantastic Tale’ is a dizzying, moving tour through a dog’s heartbreaks and joys

The title dog is held high in "Marona's Fantastic Tale."
With the greatest of ease: “Marona’s Fantastic Tale” conveys the dizzying joy of a dog’s love, among other strong emotions.
(GKIDS)

The French, animated “Marona’s Fantastic Tale” is a rich exploration of love and death through the eyes of a dog. While it’s sometimes dizzying in its visuals or its joy, it’s often not cute. It can be fun, even exhilarating. It can also carry the emotional impact of loss.

The story follows a pup who goes through several names, human companions and living situations. She’s an abandoned puppy; a stray; owned by a loving acrobat; found by a builder who is a gentle giant with less-gentle people in his life; a family dog who sees her young human girl grow into a teen. We witness her bonding with and loving her humans. We feel her sorrow when those bonds break. Unlike what one might expect from a slicker movie’s approach, Marona learns from these experiences and her heart calluses in some ways, but that pulse of love within her continues to beat.

There’s plenty of dog fun in the film; that’s inevitable. It’s magnified in some ways because “Marona” takes its protagonist seriously. It feels honest. So when we see her excitedly playing fetch with her human, narrating, “I loved taking him to the park at night … we brought a ball because he loved to throw it,” it’s not just silly. It’s lovely.

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Director Anca Damian’s film is more thoughtful and emotionally realized than the carnival rides that dominate the American animated scene. There’s nothing formulaic about it. It feels very much like a personal statement, not one that went through multiple filters to find a marketing sweet spot. Amid the trappings of the story of a cute dog are meditations on the need for purpose, the simplicity of joy and the joy of simplicity, the willingness to be loyal and committed, and the heartbreak that so often follows. In that way, it’s not exactly for kids, unless they can handle a truthful-feeling examination of loss.

The idiosyncratic animation captures character and the emotion of the moment. It’s a hand-drawn mix of several styles, including charcoal sketches, watercolors and what look like pastels, as the moment requires. The visuals are supple and impressionistic, fluid; perhaps appropriate for a dog’s perspective.

Rooms can seem endlessly large. A loving embrace becomes a spiral. When Marona collides for the first time with the carnival reality of human streets at night, overlapping images and new colors convey the confusing bustle. Yet even in such moments, the animators expertly emphasize what’s important in the frame. Pablo Pico’s beautiful, largely understated score is likewise versatile: It can feel intimate or can convey wonder.

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The film’s message could be called simplistic, turning as it does on a dog’s understanding of happiness: “Humans always want what they don’t have. They call it dreaming. I call it not knowing how to be happy.” But that doesn’t detract from the purity of its moments and the metaphorical value of Marona’s thoughts, such as “Lick your human like it’s the last time, because one day it will be.”

“Marona’s Fantastic Tale” delves into a dog’s experience in ways more commercial films wouldn’t attempt, and in that way, it’s also a lesson in empathy. Looking around, that seems a valuable lesson indeed.

'Marona's Fantastic Tale'

(In French with English subtitles.)

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing: Virtual cinema release starts on June 12; includes Laemmle Theatres, Lumiere Music Hall and Studio Movie Grill.

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Trailer for the GKIDS French animated feature, “Marona’s Fantastic Tale.”

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