Rating: 4 stars out of 5
The Stars: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries, Bethany Whitmore.
The Story: Mary Dinkle (Whitmore and Collete) has always felt like an outsider. She’s 8 years old, lives in Australia, rears a pet rooster and has a birthmark on her forehead that looks like poo. Her father works in a teabag factory and spends his spare time engaged in amateur taxidermy in their shed. Her mother is a compulsive sherry drinker who loves to bake and shoplift. At the other of the world resides Max Horowitz (Hoffman), an obese, middle aged Jew living alone in a dingy apartment in New York City. Due to his odd social mannerisms, he consults a therapist and also attends Overeaters Anonymous. The only friends he has are his blind neighbour and assortment of pets. One day, while accompanying her mother on a kleptomaniac binge to the post office, Mary randomly chooses Max’s mailing details from a phonebook, thus beginning their unusual pen-pal correspondence. As the years fly past, 2 people who couldn’t be more different yet alike in some ways, share a lifetime of bittersweet anecdotes, chocolates and pom-poms.
The Buzz: Conceived by Oscar winning director/writer Adam Elliot, who garnered a golden man for his animated short Harvie Krumpet in 2004, Mary and Max is a clay animated, stop-motion feature which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. The character of Max was also purportedly inspired by a friend of Elliot’s who’d maintained a pen-pal for over 20 years.
inSing.com says: As a genre, animation often gets overshadowed by the fluffiness and razzle dazzle of merchandising and overzealous franchise marketing. So much that we often forget the sense of unadulterated, whimsical fun a well-crafted animated tale can spur--a bar that live-action finds hard to cross. Elliot works a lot of his exquisitely depressing Harvie Krumpet magic here, rendering an affecting, bittersweet quality to Mary and Max.
The story meanders between poignant and depressing, while being sandwiched between countless capricious quirks that might seem too precious if set beyond the animated world. When Max is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, it’s both heart wrenching and heart-warming to see his views filtered through Mary’s naivety via their letters as they slowly but surely build a firm friendship stemming from their collective loneliness, all whilst learning to grow comfortable in their own skin. And because their foibles are told via goofy little clay figures, we never feel overwhelmed by their tragedies or annoyed at their skewed perceptions. The animation’s arresting monochromatic vignettes highlighted by splashes of bright colour serve to underscore its overall nostalgic if sad tone. And even though the film hurtles down dark corners with themes of alcoholism, suicide and depression, generous dustings of dark humour prevent everything from becoming too maudlin.
Instead of attempting to visually and aurally assault our intelligence with overly shiny characters and big-name Hollywood actors jumping on the voice-over bandwagon, Mary and Max carries its weight with pure, solid voice acting. Humphries, whom most will probably recognize as the delightful Dame Edna, is almost unrecognizable in his smoky, narrator baritone--like a grumbly grandfather telling a bedtime story. Whitmore’s fractured cadence lends a wholesome childlike expression that transforms seamlessly to Collette’s older Mary, who manages to compellingly convey grown-up, wide-eyed innocence. Max’s self-deprecating, cynical witticisms are likewise brilliantly accentuated by an adorably gruff Hoffman. Bana’s lines are few and far between, but it is a hoot to watch him playing kooky, stuttering Damian.
It’s a shame this film failed to garner the wide commercial distribution it so richly deserves, perhaps a consequence of its dreary, vaguely sinister premise. Which even if true to life, is not quite the kind of happily ever after we’ve been mainstreamed into believing.
Beckii C is a former film production tyrant who also happens to be an insatiable movie addict. When not engaged in spirited debate, she can be found scouring the town for perfect vintage fashion and whispering at small animals. Her guilty pleasures include listening to bands who can't play their own instruments and devouring cream puffs.