Film review – Mary and Max (2009)

Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced by Toni Collette)
Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced by Toni Collette)

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.

Max Jerry Horovitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman)
Max Jerry Horovitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman)

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.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

Interview with Mary and Max writer/director Adam Elliot and producer Melanie Coombs from The Casting Couch 4 March 2009

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  1. I hope to have more to say about this film, when I find the time, but for now I dispute that Mary and Max and Persepolis are “very much for an older audience”. In fact, my 8yo son loves both. I love that each of them makes mature concepts accessible to children, because of the medium. Not that I expect him to understand everything, but it’s certainly a cure to the bland and fairy-tale structure of so-called children’s cinema.

    FWIW, I otherwise agree with your assessment. Yesterday, ACMI screened all of Elliot’s short films (Uncle, Cousin and Brother) in one sitting, which was a great warm-up for today’s advance screening of Mary and Max at the Rivoli.

  2. Hi Paul. I’m glad that your son enjoyed Persepolis and Mary and Max.

    I made the point about them being for older audiences because the common perception among English speaking audiences is that animation is predominantly for children, or at least, for families. Therefore I wanted to stress that thematically and tonally these are not like the types of films that typically come out of the big studios like Pixar, Dreamworks and Disney. It is wonderful that younger audiences are enjoying films such as Mary and Max because, as you said, these are films presenting challenging subject matter in a very accessible way. However that doesn’t mean that such films are for younger viewers.

    So I stand by what I said because these are not films for people expecting something like Finding Nemo or Kung Fu Panda. Furthermore, they are films that deserve wide and large audiences so by mentioning that they are for older audiences, I’m doing my little bit to remove the stigma that animation is only for kids.

  3. Fair comment. I was reading a comment by Elliot where he says that he’s not aiming at any particular audience, but as wide an audience as possible. His major themes are about diversity and acceptance which, coincidentally, is what I figured Persepolis is about. It’s a theme that resonates for me and my son seems to connect with it as well. But then, this is an 8-year old that also loves The Edge of Heaven, a non-animated film with similar themes.

  4. I loved this film, but in the haze of an impending head cold and associated grumpiness, accidentally ruined the end for a few other people when talking about it. OOOPS! Fortunately this is one of those films that is (cliche coming up, prepare yourself) more about the journey and less about the destination. I want to see it again!

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