The Review: For years, Disney was the world leader in hand-drawn animation to the extent where it’s hard to think of anything coming close to their consistent level of ouput, but many have tried; similarly, in the new frontier of CGI animation, Pixar have established a benchmark that others have only aspired to for the large part. Such is the popularity of Aardman’s animations, especially the seemingly ubiquitous Wallace and Gromit, that it would be easy to feel nothing else could be achieved with that particular medium. However, if Pixar have proved anything it’s that there are no boundaries to the achievements possible if your storytelling is up to the task, and so it proves with this clay animation from Australian director Adam Elliot.
Mary and Max is the story of two distant characters who become acquainted by a random act, when Mary writes to America to get answers to some of her most burning childhood questions. Mary (voiced first by Bethany Whitmore, then later by Toni Collette) is eight, out of touch with her parents and with a typical thirst for knowledge; her random selection for a recipient for her letter is Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 44 year old man from New York who writes back almost out of confusion, but of an equal curiosity about the world around him. Although they exchange letters, the effects are often profound and rarely inconsequential, and their friendship is repeatedly examined through the sometimes volatile nature of their correspondence.
Max’s difficulty is driven by a condition he shares with Mary, that of Asperger syndrome, an autistic disorder which causes him to have great difficulty in interacting with others and to be compelled to repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. To explore such a condition without trivialising it in live action would be hard enough; to use a method of film-making normally reserved for children’s stories feels at first risky, but proves to be strangely liberating. Despite the repeated misfortunes of its protagonists, there’s a remarkable vein of humour running right through Mary and Max, although it’s incidental to the fortunes of the characters and so thankfully the jokes are not at their expense.
The film uses Max’s condition and Mary’s responses to explore a wide variety of themes, including their mutual anxieties and loneliness, and as the story progresses Mary’s actions lead her on a downward spiral into depression, and the exploration of her condition is as no holds barred as it was of Max’s. It’s then that you realise how much the earlier humour has brought you to invest in the fates of these characters, and how the quality of the voice actors (also including Eric Bana and the narrator Barry Humphries) has helped to fully and believably immerse you in their world.
In the end, Mary and Max is life-affirming, poignant, uplifting and almost tragic, and has a grip on the emotions that won’t let go. It’s an absolute triumph which proves that animation can be used to tackle sensitive issues in valid and engaging ways, and despite the occasional contrivance or coincidence of the story (or maybe because of them, so immaculately implemented are they in the service of the story), it has every right to be listed in the same breath as any of the classics that I listed at the start of this review. It’s truly something special, and if you have to cross continents to see it, then be reassured that what awaits you is worth the journey.
Why see it at the cinema: To not only admire the quirky details of the wonderfully stylised animated characters in all of their glory, but to be able to check if your neighbour is shedding the same tear as you are by the end. A film to be experienced, discussed and embraced.
The Score: 10/10