Mary Daisy Dinkle (voice of Bethany Whitmore) is a young Australian girl with distant parents and a lack of close friends, other than her stray chicken Ethel and her favorite TV characters, the Noblets. Lonely and desperate for someone to talk to, she tears a page out of an international phone book and picks Max Horowitz (voice of Philip Seymour Hoffman), an equally lonely 40-something New Yorker with Asperger's syndrome. Against all odds, Mary and Max form a pen-pal relationship that lasts for decades as Mary grows into a woman (voice of Toni Collette), and the march of progress transforms the worlds around them.
It is fitting that Mary and Max is all about a chance connection, and that my awareness of writer/director Adam Elliot is a bit of pure luck. Years ago, one of my high school teachers started a weekly film club, where I saw Don Hertzfeldt's Academy Award-nominated short Rejected, when it was still an underground slice of bizarro humor and technical wizardry. Years later, Hertzfeldt's name got me to buy MTV's releases of The Animation Show -- DVD versions of the yearly roadshow program in which Hertzfeldt and "Beavis and Butt-Head" creator Mike Judge show selected animations. The first two volumes contained Elliot's shorts "Uncle" and "Cousin", which were among my favorite films the DVDs had to offer, thanks to their pitch-perfect combination of stark black-and-white visuals, wistful yet sad narration, and witty comic observation. Elliot went on to win an Oscar for his half-hour short Harvie Krumpet, but I had no idea he was mounting a feature film, and I remained unaware until the handwritten scrawl of Mary and Max's opening credits rang a bell inside my head.
Thankfully, Mary and Max once again shines its light into the dark, unusual corners of Elliot's mind. Melancholy artfully tinges each joke, incorporating details that make his characters' view of the world in front of them as heart-wrenching as they are funny. That element of darkness might limit the audience for the film. Mary and Max does not have an MPAA rating. Would I say it's suitable for kids? On one hand, there are references to adult themes and ideas like sex and death, several scenes of serious drama, and a helping of crude comedy, but the movie is also undeniably sweet. Whether the content is acceptable for children really comes down to a parent-by-parent, child-by-child basis, but I absolutely believe that a smart seven or eight-year-old would not only be able to understand it without any troubling questions, but might even embrace it.
Like Elliot's shorts, Mary and Max is all about observation. In those films, the narrator (William McInnes) reminisced about the title subjects from a first-person perspective, with Elliot's claymation figures serving as sort of a moving photo album to accompany the memories. Here, the observations are shared by the characters in the letters they exchange, which spill out in an almost impromptu stream-of-consciousness format. The audience may tire slightly waiting for some of Max's letters to end (given that they're an unrelated string of thoughts, there's little to no indication of where they will stop), but the sights and sounds of moments such as Max pretending to be an intergalactic space robot while picking up NYC trash or the Grecian last name of Mary's crush Damien tumbling out of his mouth, are directed with an eye for physical exposition and edited with comedic precision. The movie breaks the letters up with the reassuring voice of Barry Humphries as the film's narrator. I had a hard time reconciling his friendly delivery with McInnes low-key near-whisper the first time I watched the movie, but Humphries grew on me during subsequent viewings.
Even though Mary and Max may be (in my mind) suitable for intelligent kids, it will not fail to entertain and move adults, either. The film takes a sharp dramatic turn in the third act as the emotional equilibrium of the characters, with their own lives and each other, is unsettled, and Elliot is more than willing to take his characters to the edge and test their sense of balance. Much like the opening of Up (another triumph on 2009's laundry list of great animated films), the viewer may be surprised at how emotionally shattering Mary's crumpled vision of her adult life is, or Max's struggle with his Asperger's and misanthropy for his fellow New Yorkers. As the film turns, Elliot's technique stays the same, adding the same sharp level of observation to painful material as he does the rest of the film, imbuing the characters with a humanity that many live-action films fail to capture.
I missed The Secret of Kells, which may well be an equally charming movie, but I was disappointed that Mary and Max's limited release and subsequent On Demand availability apparently precluded any interest come Oscar season. Combined with the aforementioned Up, Henry Selick's wonderful Coraline, and Wes Anderson's very funny Fantastic Mr. Fox, Mary and Max proves the emotional breadth and depth that animation can offer, in a package without pretention and an ability to appeal to all audiences. It is a small revelation, and any film fan should seek out a copy -- and perhaps a box of tissues -- so that they can take a peek inside Elliot's fully-realized world of chocolate hot dog lovers and kids with cereal-box mood rings.
Mary and Max comes in a reasonably elegant if perhaps overly colorful package that cleverly locates a still from the movie that symbolically if not literally contains both of the film's cosmically separated pen pals. Actually, there's not that much color, but the red in question on the back is just so bold it's hard to keep the eyes from leaping right to it. The only flaw, as always, is that IFC never prints anything on the inside of their covers despite their continued use of transparent cases, which still and always will strike me as a waste whenever I see all that white space on the inside.
The Video and Audio
As a brand-new film shot on digital, IFC's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks just great. As with most stop-motion films I've seen on DVD, there's a surprising amount of depth to the image, since all of the characters are little three-dimensional figurines, holding tiny props on a painstakingly detailed set.
Dolby Digital 5.1 is equally good. There are only a few times, such as a climactic scene in the third act, when the film really fires on all cylinders when it comes to the sound design, but it sounds great. The dialogue is rich and crisp, and the music is vivid and powerful. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
One might guess that the creatively named "Making Of" (15:47) is a featurette, but it's actually a series of jokey video blogs presumably produced for the internet. I wish they were funnier, but they're smile-worthy at best, and since they're more like sketches than actual peeks behind the scenes, they're not very informative either. "Behind the Scenes" (8:16) is a little better, but not substantial enough to really get into the film's production. Most of the focus in the bit is in regards to the necessity of using digital, in terms of both effects (nay) and cameras (yay).
"Alternate Scenes" (2:00) consists of two excised bits: a throwaway gag, and an alarming alternate ending. The alternate ending seems so far removed from anything that could have ever worked that I have to think it's a gag for the DVD, but there's no proof of that here... "Casting Call" (1:37) is actually just Bethany Whitmore's audition rather than a series of casting tapes.
Wrapping up the video bonus features, Adam Elliot's Academy Award-winning short film Harvie Krumpet (22:02) has also been included. On one hand, I'm sure people want to see it, and it makes for an acceptable companion piece to the feature, but not only is Krumpet available for free on YouTube, but it also has its own DVD, which comes with some film-specific extras, including a commentary by Adam Elliot. Furthermore, I just didn't enjoy it nearly as much as Elliot's short films "Uncle", "Cousin", and "Brother", which were also included on the Krumpet disc. When I searched IMDb for Mary and Max, I stumbled upon a listing for a 58-minute documentary called "Making Mary and Max", by the same folks who shot those goofy video diaries. At nearly an hour, I have to guess the doc is more serious than the clips. All in all, I think the true solution would be to either include the Krumpet disc wholesale, or to ditch the two short behind-the-scenes pieces and Krumpet in lieu of this full-length documentary.
That said, there is one last extra on the disc: a feature-length audio commentary by director Adam Elliot, which is hidden away in the "Setup" menu. It's an average track, with Elliot unable to avoid slipping into the occasional shot-narration but still managing to include enough meat on the bones for it to be worth at least one listen for fans of the film and animation nuts (Elliot has lots to say about the filmmaking technique, primarily the lengths the filmmakers went to in order to avoid any digital creations). One of the more shocking revelations: Mary and Max's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival marked not only the first time they'd shown an animated film, but the first time they'd shown an Australian film. What gives, Rob?
Trailers for I Sell the Dead, The Good, The Bad, The Weird, Once More With Feeling, and The Art of the Steal play before the main menu. Both the US and international theatrical trailers for Mary and Max are also included.
The bonus feature package is a bit of a letdown -- it looks substantial but isn't as deep as you'd think -- but the movie itself is a true classic. If the disc had just contained the movie, audio commentary, and trailers, I'd probably have given it the DVDTalk Collector's Series rating, so the fact that it contains even more material on top of that, lackluster or no, is just icing on the cake.
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