Like every one of Adam Elliot’s previous pieces, “Mary and Max” is a delight to watch. Narrated in the usual fashion by a deep-voiced Australian man, the story follows the relationship between an obese New Yorker with Aspergers (“Aspies” for short) and a little Australian girl reaching out to anyone that will listen. As their relationship progresses through the years, and Mary and Max overcome difficulties together, they learn what friendship is really about. This film is sure to warm the coldest of hearts (mine).
Mary is a young girl with big glasses, a bad haircut, and a birthmark on her forehead “the color of poo.” In her struggle to connect to people (and find out where babies in America come from) she finds Max Jerry Horowitz’s name in an American phone book and writes him a letter. Babies, Mary is told, come from eggs lay by nuns, rabbis, and prostitutes depending on your religion. Mary also learns about Max’s overeaters anonymous meetings and the various jobs he has held over the years (including his current job in a condom factory). Mary and Max seem to be made for each other, and though their long-term pen pal friendship is fraught with problems, they are determined to be there for each other (through the post, of course).
Shot over five years, Adam Elliot has created a masterpiece with “Mary and Max.” A stop-motion feature with absolutely no computer animation – even the rain is animated with clay – the film was obviously a painstaking process, but one that paid off. Breaking from his usual style, Elliot employs actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette as Max and Mary’s writing voices, letting the characters narrate their own stories. This makes a feature length animated film that is essentially without dialogue work in a very rewarding way. Almost like reading a moving picture book, “Mary and Max” calls attention to details that we may have missed and points out the absurdity and humor in even the darkest of situations.
With audiences that are used to Pixar-style entertainment when it comes to their animated films, “Mary and Max” may come as a bit of a surprise. There are gruesome deaths, suicides, drinking problems, and homosexual relationships (oh my). Audiences are so accustomed to cartoons being primarily for children, that I worry about the fate of “Mary and Max.” Some of the jokes are childlike (Max seems to fart a lot), but ultimately this is a mature tale for mature viewers. One with a simple, childlike payoff, but one that takes its dramatic time getting there.
It is this maturity that makes “Mary and Max” the aforementioned masterpiece. Because while the film does deal with a lot of darkness, Elliot is able to find the humor in disaster. No one dies of a heart attack in this film. Rather, they are marinated in formaldehyde. And when Mary gets in trouble in class her knuckles are not rapped. Rather, a chalkboard eraser is thrown at her face. Elliot loves his characters, but instead of sheltering them from the evil in the world, they are thrown into that evil and given great senses of humor.
Elliot’s visual style is stunning, his animation is simple and clean, and his characters are perfectly crafted. For my money, this is the best piece of animation released since “Harvey Krumpet.”