Thursday, January 27, 2011

Review: Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009)

Mary and Max is Australian filmmaker Adam Elliot's follow up to his 2003 Academy Award winning animated short film, Harvey Krumpet. It is a clay-animated feature film that tells a charming and insightful account of a 20-year pen-pal friendship between Mary, a lonely and ordinary 8-year-old girl living in Mount Waverly, Melbourne, and Max, an obese 44-year-old Jewish man suffering from Asperger Syndrome, who lives an isolated life in New York City. Mary and Max had it's world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 and was the first animated film and the first Australian film to be screened on Opening Night in the 25 year history of the Festival. On a budget of 8.3 Million dollars, production of the film required a crew of 120 people, including six animators, to shoot continuously for 57 weeks. It was filmed in writer/director Elliot's home town of Melbourne and took five years to complete. The result is a stirring examination of the quirks and complexities of life and the desire of two strangers to find acceptance in a world where no one else will listen. Fuelled by a rich imagination and dedication to a unique artistic vision, Mary and Max is a triumph of animation that tackles quite effectively some very heavy themes.

Throughout the extent of the films' running time we are continuously learning more about the two characters, with most of it revealed through their correspondence by letters. We are first introduced to Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore), an 8-year-old plump and bespectacled girl from Melbourne who has an unfortunate birthmark on her forehead. Her mother is an alcoholic who has all but lost touch with reality, and her father stays busy working his factory job of attaching the string to the tea bag. Her only friend is her pet rooster, who "doesn't lay eggs but will someday" and she dreams of marrying a man named Earl Grey and living in a mansion with her nine children. Mary is compelled to learn about the outside world by posing a question to a complete stranger from America. Equipped with the knowledge that babies come from the bottom of beer glasses, courtesy of her grandmother, she asks Max Jerry Horowitz about the origins of babies in America. Max (voiced by an unrecognizable Phillip Seymour-Hoffman) is an overweight 44-year-old Jewish man from New York City. He lives in isolation in his apartment with an assortment of pets, and is endowed with a series of odd mannerisms that make it difficult for him to relate to others. He frequently encounters severe panic attacks and finds social interaction confusing. His only weekly socialising are his Overeaters Anonymous meetings, and the occasional call from his 'near-blind' neighbour.

Max receives Mary's letter, which also includes a small self-portrait and a chocolate bar, and while confused at first, he decides to write back and answer her question, relishing the opportunity to justify to a complete stranger his many quirks. They remain in correspondence for years, offering creative insights into each others problems, exchanging passions and interests and contemplating the confusion of everyday life. Max suffers from panic attacks, including one serious enough to hospitalize him, and result in the diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, which explains why he sees the world in a different way to most people. Mary grows older, and is voiced by Toni Collette, and after finding out about Max's diagnosis, she majors in psychological disorders at University, hoping to find a cure for Max's problem. She also marries her longtime crush (voiced by Eric Bana).

The sad, but inspiring tale of these two outcast individuals is full of twists and turns, and hilarious eccentricities. You even find yourself forgetting that it is an animation, as the emotional power of the themes and the humanity of the characters is so strongly realized. Often in the same scene, it doubles between being ridiculously cute, and sickly alarming. Technically though, the multitude of sets are quite elaborate and the stop-motion animated puppets are the product of Elliot's truly unique vision. 133 sets, 212 puppets and 475 miniature props were used during the 57 weeks of filming. The film is also shot beautifully, capturing Max's bleak existence in New York with stark charcoal black and grey, which works in contrast to the sepia drenched suburban lifestyle in Melbourne. The characters create both a sense of joy, and a gut-wrenching feeling of sadness in the hearts of the audience as we are revealed to their very honest and personal expressions of themselves to one another through their letters. Most of the film is made up of voice-over, either through the gifted voice of the narrator, Barry Humphries, or through Mary and Max's recount of their letters.

Unfortunately, the strong themes in Mary and Max, which include childhood neglect, teasing, loneliness, low self-esteem, autism, obesity, anxiety, depression, life and death, deem this inappropriate for youngsters, who still may find the animation charming. Most of the jokes and life lessons are addressed at adults, of which many I'm sure would be turned off by it's childish oddities, and macabre character traits. It's a shame that it will struggle to be widely received. I also found some of the sequences to run on a bit too long. They are quite lengthy recitals of the letters at times, and seeks to reveal everything about the characters, while not really challenging them to change. It was also frustrating to see Max, who was so motivated to lose weight, turn to buying a lifetime supply of chocolate with his lottery winnings, a sadly naive decision to believe that completing his life goals would bring him the connection to humanity that he sought. The length of the film also made the bleak final act and the witty, resonating conclusion slightly less engaging than it should have been. Still, I really enjoyed Mary and Max, and it is likely one of the finest animated feature films to ever be released by an Australian. Adam Elliot is certainly a man to keep an eye out for in the future.

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

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