‘Mary and Max’ Is Better Than ‘Avatar’ and ‘Shrek’ Combined


Mary and Max is a charming yet refreshingly adult take on the surreal, round-edged world of claymation. Written and directed by Australian Adam Elliot, Mary and Max explores the insular worlds of two lonely people, and what happens when friendships between oddballs are forged across continents.

Claymation is an art form too often overlooked in favor of more popular – and increasingly technologically advanced – types of animation. With the notable exception of the Wallace and Gromit series, there have been few claymation films in the last decade to compete with the likes of the Shrek franchise, live action/3D hybrids like Avatar, and the entire Pixar repertoire. Additionally, most of these movies are marketed to kids, even though some have adult appeal, too.

I wouldn’t take a five-year-old to see Mary and Max, but part of what makes the story so appealing is its accessibility to many different demographics. This is the sort of movie people aged ten (or so) to 100 years old can appreciate. We first meet Mary Daisy Dinkle as an eight-year-old. (Later on in the film, Toni Collette voices grown-up Mary). She lives in drab Australian suburbs with her alcoholic parents. (The excellent narration, provided by Barry Humphries, informs us that mum drinks a special kind of tea for adults called sherry, which requires frequent testing, while dad’s brew of choice is Bailey’s Irish cream). Mary wears glasses, is a bit chubby, and bears a birthmark on her forehead. She likes chocolate, a cartoon called “The Noblets” ( creatures who look like a curious genetic mix of Smurfs and amphibians), and has a pet rooster named Ethel.

Mary decides to write to one M J Horowitz after ripping a page out of an American phone book she finds at the post office. She asks him where babies come from (being under the impression that in Australia, they’re found at the bottom of beer glasses), whether he enjoys sweetened condensed milk, and tells him that she likes The Noblets.

A world away, Max Horowitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman) turns out to be a Noblets fan himself. Like Mary, he is fond of The Noblets because they all have “oodles of friends”. Also like Mary, he is shy – we later learn he has Asperger’s syndrome – and has difficulty relating to others. (His overeaters anonymous meetings are particularly troublesome due to a fellow attendee who likes to gregariously flirt with him). Max informs Mary that he was born Jewish, but has since become an atheist after reading many books which prove that God is a figment of our collective imagination. However, he still wears his yarmulke to keep his brain warm.

Mary and Max correspond for years. Max likes answering Mary’s questions (He tells her that babies come from eggs laid by rabbis, nuns, or dirty prostitutes, based on one’s religious beliefs), even though her letters occasionally trigger his anxiety attacks. Their pen-friendship is extremely endearing, but stays well away from saccharine territory. This is partly achieved through subject matter: Mary and Max does not shy away from death, suicide, alcoholism, accidental manslaughter, mental illness, even electro-shock therapy. While these themes are handled delicately and with deft humor, their presence in the film is sincere, and makes the awkward clay blobs that are Mary and Max into dynamic characters we come to really like.

The tone of the film is ultimately life affirming and uplifting, but this is in balance with the unfortunate fates that follow Mary and Max for most of the story. The characters’ flaws are pitiable, but even the most serious themes the film touches (alcoholism, mental illness) are not without humor: to overcome his anxiety when reading Mary’s letters, Max starts popping Valium before opening the envelope. Mary’s mother’s tombstone reads, “Always Merry, Killed by Sherry”.

Making Mary and Max as emotionally resonant as any live-action feature is no small feat, and owes as much to the art direction as it does to the excellent writing. Australia is represented in myriad shades of brown (including Mary’s “mud puddle” brown eyes), while New York City is grey in true gritty, grimy late ’70s fashion. These drab landscapes are punctuated with little pops of color, like the pom-pom Mary makes for Max, which he affixes to the top of his yarmukle.

Even without a compelling plot, simply watching Mary and Max is an entertaining 90 minutes. The main characters each had hundreds of silicone lips to attach to their faces to correspond with their emotional state in a given shot. Like all stop-motion animation, every shot in Mary and Max is meticulously rendered. Six animators each created four seconds worth of footage per day. Though Mary and Max are both lumpy, awkward characters, it is clear that every can of condensed milk, Noblet figurine, and postage stamp are perfectly executed. The visual details carry a different sort of value than pixels and CGI could ever hope to. Because everything is made by hand, the film bears unmistakable marks of craftsmanship, as well as literal fingerprints. Mary and Max lacks the slick polish of Avatar, or the manufactured gross-out of a comedy like Shrek, and is entirely more memorable than either one.

The special features section of the disc includes a behind the scenes videos, mostly about the techniques employed in claymation creating sets and characters. We also learn factoids. For instance, all liquid in the film was in fact tube after tube of personal lubricant. There are several Making of Mary & Max videos which can also be found on the film’s official website. These are tongue-in-cheek: Elliot arrives on set in a Segway, Eric Bana jokes about his role as Damien, Mary’s husband who leaves her for a gay Kiwi shepherd.

A real treat in the special features is Elliot’s 2003 20-minute film, Harvie Krumpet, which won best short animated feature at the 2004 Academy Awards. Similar in aesthetic and themes to Mary and Max, Harvie Krumpet is the story of a Polish-born man who immigrates to Australia. Harvey closely resembles Grandpa Simpson, has Turrets, and like Mary and Max, is an outlier on the margins of society. His life is a series of everyday triumphs (falling in love) and trials (attempted suicide). The same sense of humor that’s present in Mary and Max pervades Harvie Krumpet. Harvie has a passion for nudism, likes collecting Fakts, and late in life, becomes literally magnetic. Geoffrey Rush narrates.

Two marginally different alternate scenes can be found in the special features. Also included on the disc are the US and International trailers, a commentary with Elliot, and Bethany Whitmore’s (voice of the young Mary) very cute audition tape.

RATING 9 / 10