“Everyone had the right to love and a bone.” That’s just one of the many canine insights served up by “Marona’s Fantastic Tale,” a dazzling expressionistic view of the world through the eyes of a stray dog who wants nothing more than those two comforts. Actually, the unassuming narrator (Lizzie Brochere) — who looks like the black-and-white version of painter George Rodrigue’s “Blue Dog” — would also appreciate if her various owners could just settle on what to call her, preferably a name that no one else has. Given the title, that’s perhaps the only detail audiences can anticipate in Romanian animator Anca Damian’s unexpected offering, which provides pleasures for all ages, but especially for dog lovers.
For Damian, the Paris-set “Marona” (which exists in both French- and Romanian-language versions) marks a significant departure both in tone and style from her previous work, most notably “Crulic – The Path to Beyond,” with its dreary palette and relatively depressing story (about a Romanian man who died on hunger strike in a Polish prison). Eye-tickling in its design, occasionally tear-jerking in its execution, “Marona” feels vibrant and upbeat even in moments of melancholy — like diving into an artistic child’s sketchbook and watching the illustrations splash to life all around. If this were a painting, we might classify it as “primitivism,” although the pseudo-naïve approach (a collaboration with Belgian artist Brecht Evens, whom Damian enlisted to work on his first animated project) works perfectly with such a protagonist. Marona views things differently from people, and the movie reflects that.
What “Marona” and “Crulic” do have in common is the fact they both begin with the death of their main characters. Audiences know from the opening scene that Marona’s tale will end in the street, after being hit by a car, although the film doesn’t exploit her tragic fate for cheap sentiment. Despite its rather extreme stylization, the movie feels more grounded than the vast majority of live-action dog movies (à la “The Art of Racing in the Rain” and “A Dog’s Purpose”), which leverage the demise of their canine narrators to manipulate audiences’ emotions. If you cry in Damian’s film, it will likely be in response to moments of empathy between the two species.
Marona may be small, but she has a big heart — and also a big heart-shaped nose. Her eyes are more human than dog-like, their black orbs free-floating atop two white almond calissons, which flex to reveal how she’s feeling. Often the only monochromatic element in a frame constantly erupting with color, the tiny animal takes audiences back to a time before her birth, when her dad, a Dogo Argentino guard dog, met her mixed-race mother. These two managed to consummate their love in a way that won’t require any awkward explanations on the part of parents.
Still, their romance results in a litter of unwanted pups, of which Marona was number nine. That position instills a certain modesty in our heroine, who explains from her hiding place on top of a trash can, “When you wait your turn in your mother’s womb, ninth in line, you know you’re only getting one ninth of the happiness and one ninth of the bones.” These days, it’s strange to find such humility in a young character, but it’s a key component of Marona’s charm. At times, she comes across as a Dickensian urchin, accepting hardship as it comes, but also grateful for every gesture of kindness extended her way. She depends on humans, a few of whom take it upon themselves to care for her … for a time.
First, there’s the acrobat Manole (Bruno Salomone), a lithe collection of yellow and red brushstrokes who practices his craft in his attic apartment. Picture the trippy pink elephant scene of “Dumbo,” which ruptures the otherwise “realistic” tone of the Disney classic. “Marona’s Fantastic Tale” takes place almost entirely in such a dreamy musical space, defying linear perspective (the basis of most Western illustration) in favor of something far more freeform and playful. The film interrupts its own narrative at times to send Marona plunging into the pages of library books, or blasting her into outer-space orbit, swept along by Pablo Pico’s gently supportive score.
When the acrobat tumbles into a depression, Marona takes her leave, shacking up next with Istvan (Thierry Hancisse), an immigrant construction worker, hulking in form but tender in shape. Marona lives for a time in his bustling blueprint-like work site, which can feel lonely at night. At one point, he takes the dog home to his invalid mother, where things take a scary (and somewhat ambiguous) medical turn. Next, Istvan starts to date a high-maintenance woman, who looks like an ostrich and complains that Marona doesn’t fit in her purse, the way her friends’ dogs do.
It’s an unfortunate rivalry for the dog, and one that ultimately forces Marona out of the apartment, where she’s eventually discovered by Solange (Shyrelle Mai Yvart), a sweet young girl with an eyepatch, who brings the dog home. By this point in the story, audiences crave a connection that sticks, but the movie has a more complicated view of people: not cynical necessarily, but similar to that of someone who’s been unlucky in love, explaining how each of her previous relationships went wrong. Solange seems different, but as she ages into a teenager, she becomes distracted, refusing the responsibilities of caring for her pet. Which brings the film full-circle to its opening.
How far this poor little dog has traveled during the interim! How surprising have been her struggles to find comfort in a world where her kind are so dependent on humans. Damian depicts that journey in such original ways, taking considerable freedom from her naïve-art approach, in which 2D drawings are married with basic digital techniques to move through the film’s various environments — including the streets of a Paris quite unlike any previously depicted on screen.
This illustration-based strategy may remind some of Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s “A Cat in Paris,” though Damian’s style is looser still, even less anchored to the real world. She uses the medium of animation to let her imagination run free, which can be an exhilarating experience. It can also look ugly, even garish by contrast with the too-perfect photorealism of computer animation. That’s a matter of taste, though the storytelling is undeniably lovely.