DIRECTED BY: Adam Elliot
FEATURING: Voices of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries, Toni Collette, Bethany Whitmore
PLOT: A lonely 8-year old girl in Australia picks a random address out of the New York Cityp hone book so she can ask where babies come from in America and begins a lifelong pen-pal relationship with Max, a middle-aged New Yorker with Asperger’s syndrome.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s very good for a sentimental drama, but the crazy, damaged characters and intriguing stylized look still won’t rank it any higher than “offbeat” on the weird spectrum.
COMMENTS: The first figure you see in Mary and Max is a depressed, distressed carved koala bear clinging to a mailbox post; it sets the tone of solemn whimsy and announces Adam Elliot’s art style, a heaping dollop of cute cut with a tablespoon of the grotesque. (When the action shifts from Australia to New York, the first figure you see is a glum and manly Statue of Liberty). Mary, the little girl, is dowdy, with glasses and a “poo” colored birthmark, but Max is an ogre: a husky pinhead with ears on stalks, a dingy gray Shreck, magnificently voiced in a weary monotone by Hoffman. The two main characters rarely speak, except in monologues when they read the missives they exchange; the tale is mostly narrated in a child’s storybook style, which gives the movie a literary flavor and a frequent undercurrent of irony (the narrator explains that Mary wishes she too had a friend to play piggyback with, as the lonely girl gazes out the window at a pair of dogs preparing to mate). The story is sad—Mary’s ugly existence is particularly bleak, and made even worse by bursts of false hope—but the relationship between the two misfits is legitimately heartwarming. The main characters are almost novelistically complex, and the first act, the most rewarding, is devoted to getting to know the Aussie girl and the overweight New Yorker who always wanted a friend who was not imaginary, a pet, or a figurine. Quirky secondary characters include a Mary’s agoraphobic neighbor (who Mary thinks suffers from “home-a-phobia”), her “wobbly” sherry drinking mom, and Max’s half-blind neighbor Ivy, who smells like urine and cough drops. Tiny details and running jokes are embedded in the claymation designs, like the series of rhyming epitaphs and the homeless man in front of Max’s tenement with a sign that changes over the years of the friends’ correspondence. The Australian scenes are colored in a drab, rustic sepia, while New York is a noirish black and white; both locations have brilliant splashes of red representing the rare intrusion of joy into the character’s dim lives. Humor—from the wry to the laugh-out-loud hilarious, as when Max explains where babies come from—is a near constant companion, at least for the first two thirds of the film. The movie is intoxicating while it takes its time introducing the pen-pals, but once their characters are established, the plot hurtles through incidents as Mary grows up, loses her parents, goes to university, finds love and a career and many setbacks, and finally travels to New York to meet Max. Ironically, the more that happens in the story, the more momentum it loses; it was more fascinating as a series of leisurely, anecdotal correspondences. Further, as the story heads towards its climax, the humor drains out, as a series of personal disasters pile up on poor Mary and drive her to the psychic breaking point. Although it scarcely ruins a great film, Elliot overplays the pathos in the climax, ending the story depressingly; the final ray of sunlight, though it brings a tear to the eye, can’t relieve the heavy, heavy clouds that cast the final act into darkness. This bittersweet animated feature isn’t kids’ stuff, or really weird stuff, but it’s worth your time if you have a sentimental old softie buried somewhere inside you, and he likes to laugh.
Mary and Max is the feature length culmination of a theme Elliot had worked on in a series of short films: the relationship between a “normal” person and an eccentric, disabled outcast (the cousin in “Cousin” suffers from cerebral palsy; the title character in the Oscar-winning short “Harvie Crumpet” is afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome). Having finally explored this terrain for a full ninety minutes, it will be interesting to see if the talented director tries something different next.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“I can’t remember seeing an animated feature so dark and funny and bizarre and sad, all at the same time.”–James Plath, DVD Town (DVD)
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Irene.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)