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Australia 2009
Directed by
Adam Elliott
141 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4.5 stars

Mary & Max

Synopsis: Mary Daisy Dinkle (the voice of Toni Collette) is a lonely little eight-year-old living in Melbourne. Her mother Vera (Renee Geyer) is a chain-smoking lush with little real relationship with her daughter. Meanwhile in far-off New York, aging Max Horowitz (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) lives the lonely life of an Asperger’s Syndrome sufferer. One day Mary pulls Max’s name out of a phone book and sends him a letter. And so a remarkable pen-friendship, transcending both distance and age, is born.

Don’t make any excuses not to see this brilliant animation, from Oscar-winning animator Adam Elliott. It is at once laugh-out-loud funny, witty, moving, and just downright inspired. Every character has been created with love and care, both in terms of their look and their personality. Narrator Barry Humphries tells us about the nature of each person. For example. our introduction to Mary is “Mary is eight years old, three months and nine days. She has eyes the colour of muddy puddles and a birthmark the colour of poo. Her favourite colour is brown and favourite food is sweetened condensed milk, followed closely by chocolate. She makes necklaces out of shrunken chip packets and guides her life depending on the colour of her mood ring. Mary would like a real friend who isn’t made out of seashells, twigs or chicken bones.” How can you not fall in love with a character like this and how can your heart resist the call of loneliness inherent in this description?

The character of Max was apparently inspired by Elliott’s real-life pen-friendship. Max is 44, overweight, Jewish, neurotic, and suffers the much misunderstood Aspergers Syndrome, which makes it hard for him to relate to other people and to handle his emotions. As Mary bombards him with threatening questions he reverts to a blubbering mess in the corner, or talks to his invisible friend Mr Ravioli or, better still, to his psychiatrist, Dr Hazelhoff (both voiced by Elliott). As letters fly across the world, Max also grows, and we as an audience get a compassionate look at what it means to suffer such an alienating syndrome, as Max describes to Mary the things he does and doesn’t like.

As she grows up, Mary’s neighbour, Damian Papadopoulos (Eric Bana), is the object of her youthful desire. Damien is also an engaging and funny character, who is to play quite a role in Mary’s young adult life.

Not only does the plot (which gets more involved as it goes along) of this remarkable film sweep you along, but so does every carefully crafted detail of its look. This is not your common digital animation – this is animation at the coal-face – painstakingly created claymation figures shot in stop-motion. Their genesis gives rise to astonishing statistics such as the 212 puppets, 475 miniature props and 133 sets that were built for the film and 132,480 individual frames making up the film, whilst Elliott hand-drew the correspondence of Mary and Max, as well as the lettering for so many of the miniatures shown in incredible detail. So much of the film is iconically Australian. The opening scene alone features barbies, lamingtons, a Sherrin footy, thongs, blowflies and a light-filled landscape making a stark contrast to the gloomy darkness of Max’s lonely world.

Adam Elliott told me he would still get the same satisfaction out of sitting at home drawing as he did out of getting an $8 million budget to make this film. A man of immense talent and breadth of vision, he obviously also has a vast well-spring of compassion and empathy, as well as a wicked sense of humour and a very pragmatic attitude to the realties of life. All this comes across glowingly in this outstanding first feature which does all that film should do – it entertains, amuses, moves and enlightens in a way that combines local detail with a broad insight into the human condition - making this an exemplary addition to the claymation tradition.




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