Mary and Max
Who knows if Adam Elliot’s feature debut is the strangest movie that’s ever opened the Sundance Film Festival; even if it comes close, it’s doubtful you’ll find many movies that are nearly as humorous and touching in their humanity as Elliot is able to create using mere clay. After his previous short film “Harvie Krumpet” won the Oscar five years ago, Elliot spent all that time bringing this touching story about a long-distance friendship to life.
Mary Daisy Dinkle is an eight-year-old Australian introvert who finds happiness in the smallest things despite being picked on mercilessly at school and having to contend with a sherry-drinking shoplifting mother. 44-year-old Max Jerry Horowitz is an obese Jewish New Yorker whose only companions are his bizarre menagerie of stray creatures, constantly dying fish and an imaginary friend named Mr. Ravioli. He suffers from chronic anxiety attacks, which he avoids by maintaining a strict regimen of rituals to keep his world balanced and with philosophical advice from his shrink Dr. Hazelhoff. One day, the young girl decides to randomly pick a name and address in a New York phone book and send a letter, mainly to find out the answer to where babies come from. The lucky recipient is Max, and he immediately writes back, but he soon learns that little girls have a lot of questions, many of which the neurotic middle-aged man has not been able to answer himself. As they send a few letters back and forth, usually including chocolate items, being that is one of their shared loves. Trying to maintain his first real friendship becomes too much for Max, to the point where he’s institutionalized.
By the nature of the Claymation, “Wallace & Gromit” would seem like the most obvious and natural jumping off point. Certainly there’s a similarly quirky feel, but Elliot proudly wears the influence of Charles Schultz on his sleeve. Mary looks much like a character from “Peanuts” and there are more than a handful of visual and musical references to the popular cartoon characters. The film also looks very different, avoiding the colorful palette we usually see in animated films for a look verging on monochromatic. Mary’s world is made up mainly of browns; Max is all black and white. Once in a while, we catch glimpse of a red or two, but for the most part, their two shades never intertwine. Elliot shows off his ability to build an entire Manhattan cityscape out of clay, but keep the film cinematic by zooming and panning through it as if it were real.
Even so, the best thing you can say about any animated movie is when you completely forget you’re watching animation. That happens fairly early on as you’re pulled into the world of these two odd characters, and though it’s mostly told via narration and the letters between the two characters, it never gets dull, since the situations and characters around them are perpetually entertaining. In fact, only the one time it breaks away from routine and has characters talking to each other face-to-face is where the film loses it.
The voice work by fellow Aussies Toni Collette and Eric Bana as the older Mary and her paramour is decent, but it’s the way Philip Seymour Hoffman is able to bring emotion to Max, merely with his voice and a heavy Yiddish accent, that leaves the most lasting impression. You really feel for Max’s loneliness and his burning desire for friendship, but if you’ve ever lived in New York, you can also relate to his anger and his inability to adjust to change.
This is by no means an animated movie for kids, as it deals with some very adults issues, getting fairly dark at times, but even though characters die around the duo, Elliot finds a way to send them off in a light and whimsical way.
Once the letter-writing resumes between Mary and Max, it lasts for more than a decade as Mary’s life takes a natural route, marrying the Greek boy across the street and graduating college, while Max’s life remains its usual stable self. Both of them experience better things in life as they gain self-confidence from their distant friend, but the film gets surprisingly grim when their friendship dissolves over a misunderstanding. Even so, the film’s darkest moments are countered with a bittersweet poignancy, and there’s as much joy as there is sadness in the film’s deeply moving ending.
Elliot has created two gleefully unique characters in Mary and Max, ones who immediately pull you in with their quirks and eccentricities and keep you entertained with the way they handle relatively normal situations in their own distinct ways. “Mary and Max” is certainly one of the more clever and inventive uses of clay, and a joyfully entertaining experience from beginning to end.