I hardly have words for how much this movie charmed and delighted me.
It premiered on the opening night of the Sundance festival in 2009, the very first animated film to do so, but it’s taken me all this time to learn of it and watch it.
It’s beautifully animated in very nearly black and white stop-motion, rich in details. Truly, I could have watched this movie in slow motion just to appreciate all of the work that went into each and every piece. You can see the love and attention that went into this; artists laboured for over a year, building 133 separate sets, 212 puppets, and 475 miniature props, including a tiny but fully-functional Underwood typewriter that took 9 weeks to design and build.
Mary (Toni Colette) and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are unlikely pen pals – one, a young and ostracized young girl from Australia who believes babies come from beer steins, and the other, a morbidly obese New Yorker who is autistic in a time before that diagnosis is really made or understood. They are each in desperate need of a friend, and somehow manage to find one in each other.
This movie very deftly and sensitively tackles all kinds of issues, from Max’s fragile mental health, to atheism, childhood neglect, even to Mary’s war vet neighbour who is agoraphobic (“He’s scared of going outside which is a disease called homophobia.”)
The film is tragic at times, but has this pervasive sweetness to it that makes everything bearable. The story is often told via letters exchanged between the two, which some may find a little quiet, but I’m a sucker for animated films made for adults, and this one I’m all over. The characters have this bold honesty that I couldn’t get enough of (In her first letter, Mary encloses a drawing of herself with the caveat “I can’t draw ears properly but I’m great at teeth”; in one of his responses, Max asks, in typical random fashion, “Have you ever been a communist? Have you ever been attacked by a crow or a similar large bird?”) Honestly, I watched this movie like it was my favourite book, or the greatest dessert – savouring it, delighting in it, racing toward the culmination but dreading the end.
Lots of the visuals are their own little jokes, but blink and you’ll miss them (keep your eyes peeled for clever epitaphs on the graves). One of my personal favourites was that some of the stamps used by Mary featured Dame Edna, whom I love, have loved since childhood, while it was Barry Humphries himself who narrates the film. So delicious.
Director Adam Elliot is also behind the Oscar-winning short Harvie Krumpet – worth a viewing all on its own, but also a good barometer for the tone of Mary and Max. It never got a theatrical release in North America but it’s available on Netflix right this minute, and if you check it out now, I guarantee it’s not a minute too soon.