After the 2003 film Harvie Crumpet won the Academy Award for Best Short Film in the Animation category, expectations were very high for what its creator Adam Elliot would do next. Once again working in the painstaking style of animation known as claymation, the Australian writer/director has made Mary and Max, his first feature. It not only fulfils all expectation about what the talented filmmaker would do next, but exceeds them. Mary and Max is a beautiful film and Elliot’s biggest success yet. Mary and Max still possesses Elliot’s trademark slightly grotesque yet simple visual style and droll approach to storytelling but this time with more dynamism and complexity. The film covers 20 years but only explores the lives of its two characters – Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced by Toni Collette) and Max Jerry Horovitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Mary is a sad 8-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne. Bullied at school and neglected by her parents, Mary’s loneliness is lifted when she begins a pen friendship with Max, a 44 year-old-man with an eating disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome who lives in New York. It’s a frequently turbulent relationship as the curious nature of Mary letters often set off Max’s anxiety attacks but gradually the pair learn how to manage their communication so that they can each remain the source of joy for the other in otherwise unhappy lives.
Like Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir, Mary and Max is very much animation for an older audience. The subject matter and tone of the film is often dark, sad and upsetting but Elliot skilfully balances such moments with dark humour and carefully timed endearing moments. Elliot is also frequently very wicked with his morbid cameo and the invention of the kid’s cartoon The Noblets being two fun examples. The animation (none of which is done with the use of computers) is extremely expressive and captures both the sense of time and place throughout the film but also the way that both Mary and Max view the world around them. The film opens with a wonderful montage of iconic Australian suburban images that are slightly distorted in a way that reflects Mary’s childhood perception. These images of Australian suburbia are instantly recognisable but uniquely free of all the tourist brochure clichés about living in Australia.
Elliot based the character of Max on his own penfriend, a person who also has Asperger’s Syndrome and lives in New York. Elliot clearly has a deep and empathetic insight into the condition and this is reflected by the extremely sensitive, yet undiluted, portrayal of Max’s condition. Mary and Max is a deceptively sophisticated film that mines incredible emotional depths in its portrayal of friendship and living with a mental illness. Both sad and funny, it’s a moving film that will more than likely result in audiences having to fight back tears throughout the final credits.