Mary and Max: claymation film labouring under plot aimed at both adults and children but failing both

Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” (2008)

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Source: www.artabase.net

This is a poignant film about how friendships can be made between social misfits and how they thrive and survive under the most trying and difficult of circumstances. The use of claymation, in both black-and-white and sepia, allows Elliot to tackle issues of mental illness, loneliness and being an outsider through the 20-year penpal relationship of the titular characters, Mary Daisy Dinkle and Max Jerry Horowitz, in a way that treats such problems and their consequences with some distance and respect while not over-dramatising them to the extent that they become trivialised. The warmth that develops through the friendship and the humour, much of which is obsessed with and uses poo as plot devices, act as an antidote to what could have been a very depressive and dark film.

The friendship begins in a non-descript suburb in Melbourne, Australia, when 8 year old Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore), lonely and neglected by both her parents and the kids at school, and having been told by a relative that babies in Australia are born from the bottoms of glasses of beer, wants to know how babies in America are made. She contrives to snatch part of a page from the New York City telephone directory at the local Australia Post office when her sozzled mother Vera, caught shoplifting stationery, quickly whisks her out and away from the enraged postmaster. Amazing that Mary could find the New York City phone directory in a small Australia Post office outlet in Melbourne in 1976; maybe there was a small colony of Manhattanites settled near that outlet at the time. Choosing a name and its corresponding address at random, Mary writes and posts a letter to Horowitz (voice: Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a lonely Jewish-American man incapacitated by numerous past traumas and his inability to relate to others. Discovering a shared love of chocolates and outsider status, over time the two readily bond and offer support – Max advises Mary on how to deal with bullies at school – though each letter from Mary brings negatives as well as joys for Max as he is forced to relive past childhood terrors and memories of failed jobs while reading each new missive; one letter puts him into such distress that he ends up in hospital for 8 months. During this early part of the film, while Mary is an innocent child, the narrative is at its most charming and amusing, and the sentiment and whimsy are not too apparent.

As Mary grows up and, buoyed by Max’s support and advice, becomes a confident woman (now voiced by Toni Collette), the source of Max’s problems is revealed – he has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism – and the film becomes sombre as the main characters start to move further apart and the narrative wades into the dark territory of depression and suicide. Minor characters die in ways that angle for cheap laughs – Vera, drinking herself into a haze after her husband’s death, mistakes embalming fluid for liquor – and the plot twist that comes when Max angrily rejects Mary for researching and publishing a book on Asperger’s syndrome for her postgraduate degree, using him as a research subject, whacks issues of depression, rejection and near-suicide onto viewers so quickly compared to the gentle pace of the film’s early half that everything seems very forced as though we have to be taught a hard lesson on life’s sorrows. The film’s flaws become more irritating – Barry Humphries as a didactic narrator using a mock-storybook style is especially annoying and drags the action down – and the sentimentality, especially when Mary becomes pregnant and has her baby, becomes cloying.

The animation is not bad with little evidence of CGI effects (it looks crude but the raw quality accentuates the film’s quirky charm) and this leads me to think that if Elliot had handed over the script-writing and the basic story-line to someone else and had concentrated on the technical aspects of the movie, it would have been so much more improved with a bulked-up and tighter plot that would dispense with the narration and which would be less repetitive in its later half. There would be a greater variety of jokes and other forms of humour to counteract the gloom, with not so much reliance on toilet jokes, and also to emphasise and contrast with Elliot’s message of how life can be cruel and you just have to deal with the cruelty with all its pointless randomness. Claymation films such as this are demanding in terms of the time and labour taken to get each little character right and each scene story-boarded and set up correctly so it’s worthwhile for animators to delegate the job of writing good scripts and screenplays that they can work with to capable writers to justify the expense and effort involved.

As it is, “Mary and Max” is an oddball film with appealing characters who are not lacking in warmth, gentleness and humour but who are forced to labour under a plot that can’t decide perhaps whether to pitch at families with preteen and teenage children as its target audience or to adults prepared to watch claymation films on their own merits – so it targets both groups. A big mistake: trying to be all things to all people is sure to result in something that fails to please everyone.