It’s not often that an Australian film opens a major international film festival, but I can think of very few films more deserving than Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max of opening Sundance. Fiercely independent and intensely personal, this is an emotionally affecting tale of friendship that just happens to be crafted entirely out of clay. It’s without a doubt the first very good Australian film of 2009.
It’s been six years since Adam Elliot unveiled his Oscar-winning short Harvey Krumpet (watch it here), but the Australian filmmaker has not been sitting idle. Five years in the making, Mary and Max is as ambitious an animated film as you’re likely to see. That the film is inspired by autobiographical truths only makes this tale of loneliness and acceptance that more poignant.
Spanning 20 years, the film tells a sad but heart-warming story, the pen-friendship between young Mary Dinkle, a chubby suburban girl living in the outskirts of Melbourne, and Max Horovitz, an obese Jewish man leading a lonely, reclusive existence in New York City. Both characters are lonely and disfunctional, innocent souls at odds with their corrupt environment. Both find in the other - though not always intuitively or easily - the guidance and support they need to survive against odds which range from individual neuroses to severe bullying.
The epistolary narrative unfolds mainly through the use of voice overs: one wry, omniscient narrator (Barry Humpreys) and the voices of the film’s two letter writers, Max and Mary. Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent as Max, adding to the character’s measured diction all manners of heavy breathing, strangled gasps and fatalistic sighs. Mary - who wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Peanuts comic - is voiced as a child by the very gifted Bethany Whitmore, and as an adult by fellow Australian Toni Collette. Both do such a sterling job of portraying the complex character you feel you would recognize the real Mary if you met her in the street. Eric Bana makes a brief but noteworthy appearance as a gay neighbour whom Mary tragically falls for.
Max is the first realistic, fully-rounded character with Asperger’s Syndrome I have seen on screen. His aspie traits are well defined and sensibly portrayed, adding to Max’s rich personality rather than reducing the character to a disability or a stereotype. Elliot doesn’t reach for the heartstrings, he is simply attempting to be as honest as possible in his depiction of the condition.
The shadow of death (often of the suicidal variety) hovers above the entire film, never entirely dispelled by Elliot’s crude but witty humour. Mary and Max wears its bleak but uplifting contradiction on its sleeve, and one of the film’s most endearing qualities is its refusal to pretty things up. Life, Elliot seems to say, is often cruel and unfair: if we’re lucky, respite can be found, but unlike in most movies, we can’t cheat what fate has in store.
The claymation is of the highest calibre and a constant source of awe and joy for the viewer. Without using a single frame of CGI, the animators are able to elicit wonder and sustain disbelief throughout. Rain is achieved through the use of fishing line, fire is red cellophane and water is rendered in copious amounts of KY jelly, but these effects are so convincing that all barriers standing between us and the story vanish as soon as the it gets into gear.
The details of the production requirements give an idea of the amount of work which would have gone into such a film. The film was shot over 57 weeks using 6 high-res stills cameras on 133 separate sets which featured 212 puppets and 475 miniature props, including a fully functioning Underwood typewriter which apparently took 9 weeks to design and build. Each of the six animators created on average about four seconds of animation each day. Four seconds!
The Australian suburbs are portrayed in multiple shades of brown while NewYork City exists in black and white, punctuated here and there by splashes of colour: usually in the form of exotic objects sent by Mary. Both worlds are as different as they are enchanting, peopled by a cornucopia of eccentric marginals, from a homeless man who gives financial advice to an agoraphobic neighbour who’s not left his house in 30 years.
There are a few lulls in a screenplay that could have used some tightening: narrative repetitions and predictable moments later in the film all but pull the viewer out of the action. The story is paper-thin and some stretches of it are simply too long, yet whenever the narrative thread threatens to tear the sheer authenticity and bold honesty of the characters save the day.
Despite temporary lapses in the flow of storytelling, Mary and Max is never boring. Elliot’s attention to detail is richly satisfying and animation fans will delight in spotting tributes to other recent classics of the genre (Alex Weimer’s The Typewriter and Peter Cornwell’s Ward 13 come to mind).
Like perhaps any work which requires such time-consuming effort and specialist skills, this film is clearly a labour of love. Nothing about it feels calculated to please, shock or enlighten. That it manages to do all three without its honesty being compromised in the slightest is a testament to both Adam Elliot and producer Melanie Coombs’ talent.
The film was recently selected to screen in the Berlinale’s Generation program (in the 14Plus category), and while it is loaded with references to sex and adult themes such as alcoholism and depression, I would recommend it to parents of kids of a mature disposition and curious outlook, whatever the final rating slapped on by the classification board.