Mary and Max (Australia 2009, 92 min. dir: Adam Elliot, cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries).
Can clay figurines assume more emotion than flesh and blood humans? If the answer is no we can throw out all those statues of Jesus. If the answer is yes we ought to take a close look at Mary and Max.
What Adam Elliot does with clay figures to create the very real emotions of Mary and Max is amazing. These are two very complex and needy people. Mary is growing up in a dysfunctional home in Melbourne, Australia, while Max is binge eating his way to corpulence in his New York apartment. There is no love for them at either end of the postal spectrum. Yes, postal: they actually write letters to each other in an age before email. Mary’s chance encounter with a library phonebook page links them together.
Actually is a relative term here. The story never really happened, but fragments of it did occur within the circle of friends and family of director/writer Adam Elliot. From childhood he had an incurable twitch, probably Tourette Syndrome that made him as much an outcast as he made Mary with her forehead birthmark.
It makes sense that a lonely kid who grew up on a shrimp farm in Australia found his way into the equally remote and silent realm of tabletop film animation. Elliot did several acclaimed Claymation shorts before Mary and Max.
If there is a future for filmmaking it will be hugged by lonely artists in airless rooms creating personal visions like this one. Box office champs may still be called “films,” but the better name invented by Aldus Huxley in 1984 was “feelies.” Real film, the progeny of Eisenstein and Spottiswoode is the medium of artists like Elliot. It exists frame by frame, and it creates worlds that cannot exist elsewhere.
Mary and Max is pure filmmaking. First it is Claymation. That is the name given to the tedious process of moving objects made of clay one frame at a time. Wallace & Gromit popularized Claymation, but the tabletop technique goes back to the films of Ray Harryhausen and before (King Kong, for example).
I won’t describe the plot, you can Google it. The voices of Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman are perfect. The music by Dale Cornelius, even though a bit over used, is a memorable movie theme. My only question is how Mary and Max’s movie could sneak into theaters, get awards, and disappear without leaving a ripple on the water? I’m glad at least I found it.