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Mary and Max Photo Courtesy of Mongrel Media
Mary and Max Photo Courtesy of Mongrel Media

Noble themes, drab hues Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

Mary and Max

  • Written and directed by Adam Elliot
  • Featuring the voices of Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman
  • Classification: PG

Unusual, personal and something of a breakthrough in adult claymation, Max and Mary opened the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and won the Ottawa Animation Festival grand prize. The first feature film from Australian animator Adam Elliot, creator of the Oscar-winning 2003 short Harvie Krumpet , the film is about an unusual friendship between a lonely Australian girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne and a morbidly obese, middle-aged Jewish New Yorker with Asperger syndrome, a developmental disorder.

Created over five years, Mary and Max is a visual stunner about the emotionally stunted. It places its tactile, lumpy claymation characters in two grimly monochrome settings (Melbourne and Manhattan). We first meet Mary in 1976, a lonely child who's teased by the kids at school and neglected by her dour father and alcoholic mother.

One day, she arbitrarily copies a name from a Manhattan phone book and writes to a man named Max Jerry Horowitz. Through their subsequent letters, misfits Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore and later by Toni Colette) and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman, speaking in a Yiddish-inflected monotone) share thoughts on procreation, God, chocolate bars, their favourite television shows, pets and day-to-day torments. Their relationship stretches over 20 years, through countless tribulations and misunderstandings.

Elliot's story (partly based on his own pen-pal relationship) is obviously a labour of love, though it's not an easy film to enjoy as the tone swings alarmingly between the depressive and the gratingly twee.

At least for the first half, the visual surface of the film is enough to carry us. Suburban Melbourne settings are shades of brown, which is Mary's favourite colour. Max's even more dismal New York is cast in jumbled patterns of black, white and grey, until Mary sends Max a bright red pom-pom which he wears atop his yarmulke.

All the characters are rendered in an amusingly grotesque tactile style, reminiscent of Nick Park's notable Wallace & Gromit . The best of the knobby lot is Mary's bespectacled, sherry-swilling mom Vera (Renée Geyer), who resembles narrator Barry Humphries's Dame Edna alter ego.

With all the voiceovers as they read their correspondence, Max and Mary is non-stop talk, and Elliot seems to have no mental hiccup, joke or bizarre twist he's willing to repress.

Their letters, meanwhile, are streams of non-sequitur queries: Why is belly-button lint blue? If cab drivers go backward, do they give you money? Do you like the word "cumquat"? The often juvenile humour that runs throughout the film feels at odds with the weightier themes of mental illness, alcoholism, anxiety, suicide and violent death. ("Poo" is not just the colour of Mary's birthmark; it's a repeated plot device and apparent design element.)

To its credit, Max and Mary doesn't play it as safe as Hollywood animated fare, but for all its originality, it produces its own ambivalence. The mixture of artistic sophistication and emotional crudeness cancel each other out.

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