Thursday, December 10, 2009

Movie Review: Mary & Max

Mary and Max ***
Directed By:
Adam Elliot.
Written By: Adam Elliot.
Starring: Toni Collette (Mary Daisy Dinkle), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Max Jerry Horovitz), Eric Bana (Damien), Barry Humphries (Narrator), Bethany Whitmore (Young Mary), Renée Geyer (Vera), Ian 'Molly' Meldrum (Homeless Man).

Animation can be used in a lot of different ways. Sadly, North American audiences still mainly see it as kids stuff, and don’t really seem to pay all that much attention to animated films aimed at adults. Mary and Max is a wonderfully animated movie, and while there is no violence, no swearing and no sex, it is still not really a movie for kids. There is an air of sadness that hangs over the entire film.

Mary is a little girl living in Australia. She has an ugly birthmark on her forehead, and no real friends. Her mother is an alcoholic and her father either spends all his time working or in his shed doing his taxidermy. She is utterly, completely alone. One day, at the post office she gets an idea to mail a letter to America. She has been told that babies come out of the bottle of beer glasses in Australia, and wants to know if the same thing happens in America. She picks out a name at random from the book – Max Horovitz – and writes him a letter that asks the question, and also details her life. Thus is the beginning of a very strange pen pal friendship.

Max lives in New York City. He was born a Jew, but is now an atheist. He is in his 50s, massively overweight and has Aspersers. Like Mary, he is utterly, completely alone. Intrigued by Mary’s letter, he rattles off pages of typewritten screed where he details his own life in rather literal detail. The two start exchanging letters on a regular basis throughout the years. They have both finally found a friend – even if that friend is on the other side of the world.

Mary and Max is told in mainly black and white claymation. There are dashes of color that director Adam Elliot sprinkles throughout the film, but mainly the film has a dark look to it – which only serves to highlight the lives of the characters, who are both in their own way depressed. As the movie moves along, the color scheme changes at times when things get a little brighter for the characters, and then darkens again. Although a movie about pen pals does not seem like the typical movie to be animated, it works amazingly well here.

The voice work also helps quite a bit. As a child, Mary is voiced by Bethany Whitmore, who has innocence about her voice that works well for the character. She does not have a good life, but she has hope that it going to get better. When she becomes an adult, Toni Collette takes over as the voice, and there is a forced cheeriness about her voice as she tries to convince herself that she is happy. Eric Bana is good in support, and Barry Humphries may have the most lines as anyone as the narrator. But the star of the movie, vocal wise, is Philip Seymour Hoffman as Max. I knew he was doing the voice before the movie started, and I still didn’t recognize the voice as his. It sounds almost like Richard Lewis, but with more sadness and despair threaded through it. It is one of the best vocal performances of the year.

Mary and Max meanders a little bit in places. Watching the film, even though I was utterly involved in the lives of the two characters, I had the suspicion at times that the film would have worked better had it been shorter. Things seem a little too drawn out at points to try and stretch the movie to feature length. But that is a small complaint about what is really a touching, insightful little movie. Don’t let the fact that it is animated fool you. This movie is about real people.

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