Rating: 4 out of 5.

Every now and then, a wonderful film comes along to remind us what makes 2D-animation so special in the first place. In stunning Belgium/Norway collaboration Titina, we follow the very first exploration of the North Pole through the eyes of an absolutely adorable little dog. The perspective of spunky punk Titina adds an extra layer of excitement; while the surprising true story adaptation maintains an intimacy through its devotion to character development, it’s the attention to detail in depicting these events that really sold me.

Promising to be “more or less based on true events,” we open in 1978 Roma. An elderly Titina lives with her grandfatherly owner, bumping down a box so he will play a special movie reel for her on his projector. Together, the odd couple sit down together to watch the vintage footage unfold, which is depicted in live action. A younger, fully alive version of the man and Titina appear onscreen, aboard a gigantic zeppelin. This past has not been something they revisited recently, and yet it is clear that it holds a deep significance for them both.

53 years earlier, cute little stray Titina wanders to and fro, desperately seeking food and attention. If a five decades old doggie wasn’t your first clue as to elements of magical realism and the fantastical bleeding into Titina, many more are in store. It becomes nearly impossible not to root for her as she stumbles into a butcher shop and attempts to gobble down some sausages. When the owner tosses her back out into the street, Titina collides into the man who would become her future owner. Curiously offering up a piece of celery to the stray, this kindhearted fellow, Umberto, is actually a famous airship pilot! Titina follows him home, and he scoops her up as the newest member of his family. The rest, as they say, is history.

Meanwhile back in Norway, skiing-obsessed renowned explorer Roald gets a crazy spark of an idea. He dials up Umberto long-distance, which seems an unnecessarily complicated and expensive way for people to reach one another. On this day, Roald makes an intriguing proposal to Umberto: Roald wishes to hire him to construct a new airship that must be able to withstand even the most demanding weather conditions. Together, they can become the very first people to ever explore the North Pole! Of course, when Umberto later arrives in Norway, he brings Titina along as his companion!

What follows along their perilous, darkly humorous journey is punctuated by further vintage footage, inner canine visions, terrier stew, an over-the-top musical number, and a budding friendship between young Umberto and his older idol, Roald. Though the tension between them is palpable once on the road, Umberto and Roald seem to share an undying love and respect for one another. The splendid animation appears ever-ready for the task of capturing sweeping cloud views, and the lush icy landscape of the North Pole. Titina overall is one gorgeous movie.

A vibrant meditation on dying, what it means to live, and leaving behind a legacy are not typically themes that animated movies embrace, and yet here is Titina. For this reason, the conclusion becomes a crescendo of emotionality that drove me to tears. We see films regarding the power of friendship far more frequently, and yet Titina too seems to approach it differently. I could tell they put a lot of passion and heart into this production, mainly because it bleeds through in nearly every frame. During the credits, photographs of the real Titina, Umberto, and Roald are sure to close out in a warm way; the director’s insistence at putting in a brief message about the ice caps melting is just the cherry on top of an already heartwarming animated feature.

Titina screened at 2022’s Animation Is Film Festival.

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