Directed by: Adam Elliot
Runtime: 1hr 32mins
Review by: Zach Owens
When you think about writing a story you ask yourself, “is there a lot of action? or is there a lot of thinking and descriptions.” If there’s a lot of actions you have a movie, if there’s a lot of thinking and descriptions you probably have a novel. Ok, so that’s not always the case, but when it comes to making a film about pen pals writing to each other and describing their lives, it could be hard to imagine the visual component.
That clearly wasn’t the case for Australian filmmaker Adam Elliot. His 2009 film “Mary and Max” is a visually unique stop motion animated film about sad lonely people finding solace in friendship on the other side of the world.
It begins in Australia in 1976, where we meet 8 year old Mary Daisy Dinkle (young Mary: Bethany Whitmore; grown up Mary: Toni Collette). Her world is presented in near sepia tone, a very dingy shade of brown. Max’s world, in New York, is presented in grey scale.
They both watch the Noblets, a cartoon where everyone has oodles of friends, and it makes them both wish they had oodles of friends too. However, making friends doesn’t come easy for them. They both struggle to relate to others, finding most people endlessly illogical.
Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who’s vocal performance is so good you might not recognize him) suffers from depression, obesity, and Aspergers. He finds many things confusing and stressful. When Mary randomly selects his name out of a phone book to become her pen pal, Max has an anxiety attack. Each new letter from her triggers the type of attack he’d have with any new, strange situation he encounters. However, once the attack is over he decides to write back.
They both describe themselves including all the small, sad, or even humorous details. Mary takes the opportunity to ask him questions she’s always wanted to know about life and the world. They’re the types of questions it might be easier to ask a stranger. Her inquisitive nature reminds us of what it’s like to be young, when you’re still discovering the world and lots of things don’t make sense. Chief among them the strange and funny things adults tell young kids, that we believe long after we should know better (like where babies come from). She explains that people at school make fun of her, and Max is all too familiar. He’s able to relate to her even though it means he has to struggle through bad memories.
Over the years their bond becomes a form of therapy for each other. As they get older they go through a lot of stressful changes, particularly Mary, but having each other to talk to makes things easier.
Now that description may lead you to believe that this is a depressing film. It’s not afraid to take on tough subjects like depression and Asperger’s Syndrome, but it does so in a charming and light-hearted way. Crucially, it never feels like it’s making light of these struggles. These are people with tough lives, and they’re in desperate need of a friend. There’s just something beautiful about the way these two strangers befriend each other, the way they see the world, and how they help each other through tough times. Learning to accept each other, and themselves for who they are is key to their survival. Finding a kindred spirit on the other side of the world is one of life’s beautiful little discoveries.
“Mary and Max” is one of the most unique films of the last 10 years. The stop motion animation is similar to that of a Tim Burton film, although less creepy, and more comical. It’s also one of the most cleverly written and constructed films I’ve ever seen. It’s strong enough writing that it could have been a novel, but so visually appealing you’ll be grateful it’s a movie. Elliot manages to tell a story that’s poignant, intelligent, touching, and simply beautiful. It’s no small task to combine melancholy and humor, but Elliot pulls it off in an extraordinary way.
One of the strongest aspects of the aesthetic is the music, most of which is provided by Penguin Cafe Orchestra. The few extra songs include an instrumental version of Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” and a version of “Que Sera Sera.” They both further the theme of accepting life and whatever comes of it. The future is not ours to see, thankfully we have friendship to help us get through it.