by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Adam Elliot
Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries, Eric Bana
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Stop Motion Film”
PLOT: A tale of friendship between two unlikely pen pals: Mary, a lonely eight-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and Max, a forty-four-year-old severely obese man living in New York.
“Mary Dinkle’s eyes were the color of muddy puddles. Her birthmark, the color of poo.”
Thus begins the narration of one of the most poignant movies I’ve ever seen, Mary and Max, a 2009 stop-motion animated film made in Australia. It never got a wide release in America; were it not for the fact it appeared on the IMDb list of the top 250 favorite films worldwide, I might never have heard of it. Thank goodness I found a copy online and bought it…one my best “blind-buy” purchases ever.
At this point in an earlier draft of this review, I launched into a plot description which veered into a discussion about the movie’s color palette, its tone, its agenda, etcetera. But that somehow didn’t feel right, and I got bogged down. What I really want to impart upon you, the reader, is how it made me feel.
It’s a drama about mental illness wrapped in the trappings of a Tim Burton-esque dark comedy. What this means is, some of the visuals are right out of The Nightmare Before Christmas: oversized flies with googly eyes, suicidal goldfish, main characters whose body shapes resemble vegetables more than people. But the story and emotional beats rival any Merchant Ivory film or James L. Brooks weepie.
Eight-year-old Mary Dinkle, who lives in Australia, starts up a pen-pal correspondence with Max Horovitz, a 44-year-old obese single man with undiagnosed (at least initially) Asperger syndrome. After his initial panic attack at receiving a letter from a complete stranger, which throws his carefully controlled equilibrium out of whack, he writes her back, and they wind up having a decades-long correspondence. She has no friends due to her prominent forehead birthmark. He has no friends because he can’t relate to people.
The movie is mostly an unseen narrator bridging gaps between their letters, while the letters are read as they’re being written/typed by Mary and Max. The relationship between the two is as touching as anything I’ve ever seen on film. She sends him a hand-drawn picture of herself, which he keeps in his mirror to remind himself how people are supposed to look when they’re happy. He sends her his recipe for chocolate hot dogs (a chocolate bar in a hot dog bun). She asks him all the important questions, like: if a taxi drives backwards, does the driver owe YOU money? He explains a long gap in their correspondence: “I was hospitalized, won the lottery, and my next-door neighbor died.”
These two lonely souls reaching out to each other just made me feel sunny inside, even amid the small tragedies they each faced. Mary’s father dies. Max keeps having to buy goldfish. Mary falls in love with the Greek boy across the street, a boy who stutters, wants to be an actor, and, when they become engaged, makes her wedding dress for her. Uh, huh.
The way in which the stories of these two people were written to complement each other without being identical is a delicate balancing act that threatens to veer into farce, then rights itself at the last second. As I say, it’s hard to describe.
A turning point occurs when Mary gets a bit older, goes to school, studies mental disorders, and writes a book about her American pen-friend with Asperger’s. She sends him the very first copy…but Max’s reaction is not what she anticipated. She falls into a depression…
And here the movie takes a brilliantly dark turn. I remember watching it for the very first time thinking, “Are they really telling THIS kind of story in a stop-motion film?” Yep, they are. There is a key scene where Mary has a kind of fever-dream hallucination choreographed to a haunting version of “Que Sera, Sera”, and my jaw dropped. I cannot claim to have intimate knowledge of mental illnesses, but this scene just feels right. This is a great representation of what someone’s mind might look and sound like on the brink of a terrible decision.
I realize I’m not making this movie sound like a lot of fun. I can assure you that it is entertaining and fun, with a nasty (in a good way) habit of getting a chuckle while juxtaposing it against a scene of subtle awfulness. The way Mary’s mother dies gets a laugh…but only as you’re listening to her death throes in the background. The way Max’s various goldfish die is alternately funny and gruesome, or both at the same time.
And the REAL kicker is the final sequence, where Mary finally discovers where Max has kept all her letters through the years. This moment is one of the greatest revelations I’ve ever seen, and I nearly shed a tear when she did.
Portrayals of mental illness in films have had varying degrees of success. For every Rain Man, there’s an I Am Sam. With Mary and Max, the filmmakers used the stop-motion medium to present hard-hitting material without totally getting bogged down in the inherent trauma or pathos of the illness being portrayed. It’s an ingenious combination, but I’ll be damned if I can explain exactly WHY it works. It just does. Mary and Max remains one of the most unique animated films I’ve ever seen. Seek this one out if you can.
QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC
Were you surprised by the ending? What would you do differently?
I was bamboozled by the ending. I do sort of wish we had some idea of what happened to Mary after her trip, but I guess that’s okay. I wish her well in her future endeavors, wherever she may be.
Why do you think stop-motion was chosen for this film rather than animation?
As I mentioned, I believe it was to leaven the deep, potentially dreary material with the inherent oddness of the medium. Even a man in a wheelchair with no legs looks undeniably goofy…but it’s tragic. But he looks kinda funny.