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Mary and Max is a claymation film by Adam Elliot, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette. Narrating throughout the film is Barry Humphries. It is the story of the long pen friendship between Mary Daisy Dinkle (Collette), an australian girl, and Max Jerry Horowitz (Hoffman), a man living in New York. The majority of dialogue between the two are in the form of letters exchanged between them during several decades, starting in the 1970’s.
The catalyst of their unlikely friendship is the one thing they have in common: loneliness. When they first “meet”, Max is middle-aged, has emotional and social difficulties (he will later find out that he has aspergers), while Mary is an eight year old who is bullied in school, has an alcoholic mother and a father who spends his time in his garden shed performing taxidermy on roadkill. The alienation Elliot illustrates is both jarring and humorous, and to some of us undoubtedly quite familiar. Their world is a crazy mirror image of our own, full of funnily bizarre characters and odd notions. But at the same time, everything seems to be grey, awkward and dysfunctional, which tints every laugh and chuckle with a wry sense of melancholy.
There’s no shortage of films and other creative works that strive to portray human existence in a beautifying light. But it is more rare to see a movie like this, where the filmmaker shows a far less flattering visage of humanity and then purposefully taking it a step further into comical grotesqueness. Mary and Max is a movie devoid of the culturally sanitizied perception of humanity that many movies throw at us using glamorous movie stars and sentimental representations of the world, instead showing us an externalized view of our imperfect inner landscapes.
Animation can be a wonderful way to realize artistic intent. It’s free of many of the obstacles present in live action productions. In the case of this film, that potential advantage is fully exploited in the sense that claymation is a little rough and asymmetrical in its nature, which fits perfectly with the quirky gloominess that is employed to tell this story.
The uncouth, gray world of eccentricities that Adam Elliot paints us makes the depiction of the close friendship between Mary and Max so much more meaningful; even in a depressing world, uncontrived friendship can occur. I think that’s why Elliot inserts a small, bright splash of colour into almost every scene; as a small visual cue of that comforting intimation.