There’s a rule in the writing biz: Don’t kill the dog. It can be a movie about the Holocaust. A book about the Hindenburg. A podcast about The Golden State Killer or a TV show about invasion of anthropophagic aliens. Chopped up women, mowed down men, thoroughly torched children — whatever it is, just don’t kill the dog. There’s even a whole website dedicated to saving the emotional wellbeing of unsuspecting audience members from the cruel whims of dog-hating writers: DoesTheDogDie.com.
In summary, don’t kill the dog. Don’t break that rule — it’s never good. Except, of course, when it is.
“Marona’s Fantastic Tale,” a French-language animated film from Romanian director Anca Damian (“Magic Mountain”) in virtual theaters now, is good. It stars Lizzie Brocheré (“Rings”) as the voice of Marona. Marona is a dog. And Marona does die. This isn’t a spoiler! But yes, the dog dies. And it’s not the happy sort of retiring in old age after a long life of cuddles and treats. She’s a victim of vehicular dogslaughter, as is the fate of many a family pet.
“I hear that’s what you do when you die … replay the film of your life.” These words, among the first spoken, frame the entire film. After all, it is literally a film about the life of a dog; after this brief bit of prolepsis the disembodied narrating voice of Marona takes us back to her days of puppyhood. She’s a Parisian mutt born to pretty-faced mongrel and a comically “racist” Dogo Argentino, who falls for Marona’s mother despite his reverence for pure blood. Christened Neuf at birth (that’s French for nine, as she was the ninth of the litter), Marona goes through a procession of names and owners good and bad: she is Ana with Manole, an ambitious but penniless acrobat; Sara with Istvan, a gentle giant of a foreman married to a loathsomely high maintenance socialite; and finally adopts the titular name of Marona after meeting Solange, a kind-hearted child that quickly grows into a sweet but neglectful teen.
We’ve all seen movies like this. “A Dog’s Purpose.” “A Dog’s Journey.” “A Dog’s Way Home.” But thankfully, this isn’t “A Dog’s Fantastic Tale.” It’s “Marona’s Fantastic Tale,” and a fantastic tale it is. Where other dog movies are derivative, rosy and all too cheeky about the doggedness of their star character, “Marona” is fresh, artistically clever and surprisingly existential. Marona is admittedly possessed of the same penchant for doggy aphorisms as the furry protagonists of its predecessors — “everyone has the right to love and a bone” — but more often than gimmicky canine jokes these are ruminations on the human condition from the perspective of a creature that necessarily perceives the world in an inhuman way. This perspective is backed up by an electric and often mesmerizing art style. Collage mixes with watercolor and charcoal and even the occasional bits of CGI in a smorgasbord of media that not only makes the film a treat to watch but visually underscores Marona’s internal state and the existential oomph of her deathbed narration. Colors swirl and shapes twist and contort as the story demands; characters oscillate between storybook-realism and the bonkers scribbling of a six-year-old; and threats jump from two to three dimensions in an animation technique that is more often than not jarring but, in in the case of “Marona,” works wonderfully.
“Marona” is a splendid example of family-friendly fare that makes no concessions to its supposedly unsophisticated audience. It’s true that many of Marona’s witticisms will fly over the heads of its youngest viewers; the art style might likewise be confusing, and the wistful, contemplative tone might be a tad boring for kids used to the manic energy of “Despicable Me” or Pokémon movies. But the panache and earnestness with which “Marona’s Fantastic Tale” approaches its subject matter make it a worthwhile change of tempo for kids and adults alike. By crafting a sweet, tragicomic story that balances profundity of meaning with accessibility of style, “Marona’s Fantastic Tale” accomplishes something the live-action members of the dog-narrates-life genre never could — and, clearly, not from want of trying.
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.