Considering the usual demographics that readily watch animated features, it’s not surprising how seldom the medium deals with adult themes. Australian Claymation film Mary and Max not only deals with adult themes of loneliness, social anxiety, love, death, and mental disability, it explores them in a whimsical yet heartbreaking manner that expertly tugs at the heart strings of audience members without ever feeling forced.
The dreary black and white look to the characters adds a sense of gloom that perfectly contrasts the movie’s subject matter. It was directed and written by indie animator Adam Elliot and stars strong performances from Oscar winning star of Capote, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Australian actors Toni Collette, Bethany Whitmore and hulk star Eric Bana as well as Finding Nemo star Barry Humphries. Mary and Max went on to receive several awards such as, among others, the Australian Directors Guild award for best direction in a feature film and the grand prize at the Ottawa International Animation Film Festival.
The film focuses entirely on two pen pals; one an eight year old school girl from Australia named Mary Daisy Dinkle (played by Whitmore later Collette) and the other a morbidly obese 44 year old man with Asperger syndrome named Max Jerry Horowitz (played by Hoffman). Their relationship, while filled with moments of hyperbolic zaniness, never fails to be honest and endearing.
The film starts with an opening narration introducing Mary and Max to the audience. After a quick glimpse into their lives we are quickly introduced to the set of events that leads Mary to begin writing letters to Max. The film moves at a rapid pace as there’s hardly any reprieve between Mary’s narrative of her letters and Max’s narrative of his. This could also be a big drawback of the film. With every letter dictated audiences are exposed to several funny and charming tidbits on the characters without any chance of appreciating them. Despite this quick delivery, nothing about the film feels artificial an every moment that occurred felt essential.
Barry Humphries has a much needed calming effect to his voice which makes him an excellent choice for narrator of this otherwise frantic film. He does a masterful job setting up every scene of the film while not taking away its effectiveness. Whitmore and Collette do an excellent job playing Mary and if he wasn’t credited audiences wouldn’t even recognize Hoffman as Max. The entire cast does a stellar job complementing the gloomy aesthetics of the film.
While the film maintains a dash of whimsy it doesn’t shy away from dealing with serious issues. Mary shares her struggles with social interactions, problems of self-esteem, and constant bullying and Max shares his struggles with his mental disorder, his over-eating, and his high anxiety when it comes to human interaction. The way that Mary and Max affect each other’s life feels believable and provides an interesting perspective in the life of someone living with Asperger syndrome. It’s refreshing to see a portrayal of mental disorder in a character that isn’t an awkward handsome genius such as Adam or A Beautiful Mind.
Mary and Max take audiences on an emotional bungee cord that will have people laughing, crying and most importantly it forces audiences to have an impression of the film. It is reminiscent of Paranorman or Coraline in style and fans of stop motion should be intrigued with its unorthodox approach. It manages to form a connection with audiences that is just as powerful as the connection shared between Mary Daisy Dinkle and Max Jerry Horowitz.
– Zaid Al-Kazemi