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It’s a dog-eat-dog world in Marona’s Fantastic Tale (L’Extraordinaire voyage de Marona), Romanian filmmaker Anca Damian’s evocatively animated French-language chronicle of a puppy that never quite gets the love she deserves.
Working with talented Belgian artist Brecht Evens, who created the character designs and graphic palette, the director builds an aesthetically rich world of 2D, 3D and cut-out imagery chronicling one cute little canine’s journey through a series of temporary homes, garbage cans, alleyways and other periods of her hangdog existence.
The film has its upbeat moments but can also be a tad gloomy — or maybe just classically Romanian, for anyone familiar with the recent cinematic output of that country — for what’s essentially a movie aimed at children. But the colorful animation helps to liven up the atmosphere, which may explain why this stray was nabbed by U.S. distributor GKIDS at its world premiere in Annecy.
Opening with a tragedy that will linger over the rest of the story, the script (written by Anghel Damian) then flashes back to the origins of our titular pooch (voiced by Lizzy Brochere), whose name changes as she passes from one household to the next. At first she’s called Nine, because she’s the last of nine pups born to a deadbeat Dogo Argentino dad and a loving mixed-breed mother who has too many children to care for.
Soon enough, Nine winds up a stray, until she’s picked up by Manole (Bruno Salomone), a tender street acrobat who renames her Ana, quickly incorporating her into his outdoor performances. Although they don’t have much money, the two seem to be happy enough in their tiny Paris garret, where Ana gets the kind of TLC she never received from her own family.
But then circumstances drive her out onto the street again, and so on and so forth as Damian (The Magic Mountain) depicts how truly difficult a dog’s life can be — but how it can also have its fleeting moments of joy: a tasty sausage at lunch, a warm and comfy corner to sleep in, or a stranger who suddenly decides to take you in.
Those positive vibes are channeled by Evens’ vibrant illustrations, which teeter on the abstract but always remain figurative, recalling the paintings of French Fauvists like Matisse, Raoul Dufy or Henri Rousseau and the drawings of German artists like George Grosz or Otto Dix. The images, which constantly morph into new shapes and colors, give the pic a lively tone that belies its otherwise melancholic storyline.
In the second half, when our four-legged heroine is finally baptized Marona by her last owner — a sweet young girl named Solange (Shyrelle Mai Yvart) who grows up too fast — the narrative drags a bit and takes too long to reach its expected conclusion.
But Damian manages to keep us amused by packing the plot with whimsical observations from Marona’s perspective (“A good sense of smell is worth 1,000 words”), revealing a level of canine intelligence that most humans never notice or else choose to ignore.
Evens’ painterly designs are backed by Gina Thorstensen and Sarah Mazzetti’s expressive sets, which create a vivid cityscape Marona has to navigate in her search for a true home. A playful score by Pablo Pico accompanies what is ultimately a touching if downbeat chronicle of a dog who could have been tossed a few more bones in her short, adventurous life.
Production companies: Aparte Films, Sacrebleu Productions, Minds Meet
Cast: Lizzy Brochere, Bruno Salomone, Thierry Hancisse, Nathalie Boutefeu, Shyrelle Mai Yvart, Maira Schmitt
Director: Anca Damian
Screenwriter: Anghel Damian, based on an idea by Anca Damian
Producers: Anca Damian, Ron Dyens, Tomas Leyers
Production designers: Gina Thorstensen, Sarah Mazzetti
Composer: Pablo Pico
Graphic creation and character design: Brecht Evens
Chief animators: Dan Panaitescu, Hefang Wei, Loic Espuche, Chloe Roux
Venue: Annecy International Animation Film Festival (Competition)
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