Marona’s Fantastic Tale (2020)

And, thus, we’ve reached the time of year when I’m worst at self-selecting movies to watch, both in terms of picking out stuff I’ll like and at giving the movies themselves a fair chance on their own merits. It’s the mad rush before list-making season, where I make risky VOD rentals on movies that look like they might be “Best of Year Material” based on a few still images & scattered online reviews. That’s an unfair amount of pressure for any movie to sustain, since I tend to ask myself dumbass questions like “Was this worth paying money to rent this when it’ll likely be streaming free in a couple months?” or “This is good, but is it Best of the Year good?” In particular, it’s difficult to say if I would’ve enjoyed the French animated feature Marona’s Fantastic Tale more if I hadn’t watched it under such asinine circumstances. I’m at my most judgmental & least forgiving at this time of year, so I spent most of the film second-guessing whether I should have diverted my time & money to a more worthy list-contender. Again, real dumbass behavior.

I picked out Marona’s Fantastic Tale based solely on the promise of its cute, psychedelic animation style featured on the poster and Google image results. It did not disappoint there. The film’s colorful, free-flowing animation is consistently wonderful throughout, clashing crudely juvenile Crayola drawings with complex digital layering techniques to achieve a singularly dreamlike effect. The film is gorgeous as a visual showcase, playfully experimenting with the iconography of cultural touchstones as disparate as video games, circus posters, Impressionist painters, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The only animated film I’ve seen this year that could claim to best in terms of innovation in craft is The Wolf House, and even that’s a tough call since this aims for imaginative beauty where The Wolf House conjures up something purely ugly & raw. It’s a total shame, then, that Marona doesn’t really amount to anything spectacular outside its visual feast. As much as I want to gush about its merits as a pure animation showcase, I can’t pretend those highs weren’t consistently undercut by its oppressively omnipresent narration & score.

The story begins with a dog, our narrator, dying in the street after being hit by car. The pup politely asks the audience to indulge her as she “rewinds the film of [her] life” in those final moments, which cues up a 90min birth-to-death flashback of her adventures in being a house pet. Marona’s Fantastic Tale is mostly a diary of the titular pupper being passed around the homes of various shitty owners while she endlessly muses about their strange human ways. It’s like a slightly more wholesome version of the feel-bad French dramedy Baxter, except that Baxter was at least aware of the social & political discomforts provoked by its constant, overbearing narration track. Marona’s tale is sometimes a little boring in its owner-to-owner sameness, but more importantly it’s often shockingly retrograde in its politics. It starts off on an awkward paw by equating societal racism to turf conflicts between different dog breeds (yikes), then gets even more uncomfortable in its weirdly backwards, rigid takes on the divisions of gender. Not only are the women depicted here vapid shopaholic bullies who only keep pets as fashion accessories (a stark contrast to the kind-hearted men in Marona’s life), but the dog itself is insistent on being gendered correctly when strangers call her “Boy” – a line of humor that’s not nearly as cute nor as insightful as the movie seems to think. The animation may be a forward-thinking glimpse into the future of the medium, but the screenplay feels like a dusty relic of a bygone era, as if it were an abandoned sequel to a Look Who’s Talking-type 80s comedy.

It’s possible that I might not have been as bothered by Marona’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus-level social observations had I not been scrutinizing it so closely as one of the year’s potential Important Works. Looking around on review aggregator sites like Metacritic & Letterboxd, it looks like I’m in the minority on being bothered by the film’s (likely unintentional) socio-political messaging. All I can report is that I found that ugly undertone to be insufferable when paired with its constant Inspo Music soundtrack that was violently fighting to pluck at my most sentimental heartstrings, as well as the narration’s cutesy observations like “Humans are strange creatures; it doesn’t take much to make them happy, and sometimes they realize that.” Considered in isolation, the animation style was just as wonderfully imaginative as I had hoped, and I’d even still recommend giving the film a look for that indulgence in pure visual artistry. The writing that provides the underlying structure for that indulgence is hugely disappointing, though, and I regret not waiting until it was streaming for free to relieve some of the pressure on it to be overwhelmingly Great.

-Brandon Ledet

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