MPI // 2009 // 92 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 10th, 2010
Sometimes perfect strangers make the best of friends.
"You are my best friend. You are my only friend."
Mary is a 10-year-old girl (voiced by Bethany Whitmore, The Starter Wife) living in Australia. Her mother is a drunk, she's picked on at school, and her life is generally an unpleasant one. Even so, Mary is a positive sort of girl who always tries to make the best of every situation. One day, Mary comes across an American phonebook, and decides to write to one of the addresses in the book and ask that random person to be her pen pal.
The random person Mary chooses is Max Horowitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote), a 44-year-old New Yorker with Asperger's Syndrome. Max is reclusive, doesn't have any friends, feels uncomfortable in social situations and struggles with food addiction (his favorite snack is "chocolate hot dogs"). He enjoys Mary's letter and decides to write back to her.
Over the course of 20 years, the long-distance relationship between Mary and Max grows and evolves into something special.
There is a part of me that is deeply moved by Mary and Max, sitting alongside a part of me that is disappointed by the way the film pushes too hard at times. The film is a 92-minute stop-motion animated effort for grown-ups, which is a tough sell (though it shouldn't be). However, in an attempt to establish itself as "mature" and "serious," the movie travels the unfortunate path of far too many indie films: the path of blatant contrarianism.
Whereas most animated films are charming and cheerful, this one is dark and gloomy. While most animated films have a vibrant color palette, this one is so overcast that it's a shock when any color at all comes through. These choices are fine, as they suit the film and its tone. However, there's still a very juvenile element at work here, as the film attempts to bury the viewer in a pile of unpleasant side items. With its constant references to feces, farting, urine and other related unpleasantries (Mary even has a "poo-colored" birthmark on her forehead), Mary and Max really does feel as if it's trying too hard to rub your face in how "real" and unpolished it is. There's also narration courtesy of Barry Humphries (The Dame Edna Experience) that teeters on a line between charmingly witty and insufferably precious. Much is made of a cartoon Mary and Max watch in which all of the characters look like penises, which stops being amusing pretty quickly. I hesitate to even mention the spectacularly misguided musical performance of "Que Sera, Sera" late in the film.
Despite this, the relationship at the heart of the film is so affecting that it manages to break through the needless trappings and resonate. At its core, Mary and Max is a sweet, honest story about two lonely and confused people desperately in need of each other's help. Granted, Max is 44 and Mary is 10 when their relationship begins, but they relate on similar levels in terms of their interaction with the world. Max is remarkably intelligent in some areas (he thoroughly enjoys contemplating the work of Einstein, Stephen Hawking and other noted scientists), but on a social level he's rather impaired due to his condition. What Mary doesn't understand because she isn't old enough, Max doesn't understand because his brain won't permit him to. The two offer each other sincere if slightly misguided advice, which is mutually appreciated.
The voice work is solid across the board, with the strongest turn coming from Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Max. Affecting a thick Yiddish accent, Hoffman sounds appropriately weary, befuddled and reflective. He really disappears in the part, which isn't something that frequently happens when celebrities are doing voiceovers. Toni Collette (United States of Tara) does good work as the older version of Mary, but most of the work done on that character is handled by young Bethany Whitmore (despite the fact that Collette receives first billing). There's also a small role for Eric Bana (Munich) as a man who marries Mary before leaving her for the loving embrace of a grizzled old sheep farmer.
The DVD transfer is solid, capturing much of the hand-crafted detail of this animated effort. The aniamtion isn't as smooth as one of Henry Selick's efforts (or even most of Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit stuff), but it does have a charmingly ramshackle feel and remains more polished than I expected for a low-budget effort like this. The scenes in Australia are sort of sepia-toned...well, to be honest, they're intentionally "poo-toned"...while the scenes in New York are nearly grayscale. I use the terms "sort of" and "nearly" because there are actually other colors that break through now and then, but the imagery is so heavily filtered that it's easy to forget about them. Detail is solid throughout. The audio is fine, though the music seems just a bit loud on occasion. The subtle sound design is weaved in quite nicely, too. Supplements include a low-key commentary from director Adam Elliot, a collection of webisodes chronicling the making of the film, some deleted scenes, a pair of (rather weak) alternate endings, a charming short film called "Harvie Krumpet" and a theatrical trailer.
Though it has many flaws, Mary and Max is ultimately a film worth seeing. When it's concluded, the touching elements of quality are what you will remember. Check it out.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Alternate/Deleted Scenes
* Short Film