Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mary and Max

I went to see Mary and Max at the SVA theater for International Animation Day. And what a treat. This year has seen a wide variety of animated releases, and there are still a few more to come before the year is out. Mary and Max is one of those few, and one that stands out on its very own.

The film states at the beginning that it is based on a true story. Director Adam Elliot confirms this in interviews. An Australian filmmaker, Adam Elliot's previous short films (the Uncle, Brother, Cousin trilogy and Harvie Krumpet) are all desaturated stop-motion pieces, primarily dealing with characters with certain disorders (mostly neurological). His films are quite dark, but at the same time, written with funny and sympathetic humor.
This movie follows the pen-pal friendship, beginning in 1976, between Mary, a little Australian girl with blossoming insecurties, and Max, a 44-year old New Yorker with issues of his own.

When I heard about Mary and Max, I was first excited by the general idea of illustrating a pen-pal relationship. But then I became even more intrigued when I learned that one of the main characters has Asperger Syndrome, a form of mild autism.

I write this review as an Aspie myself. Actually, I have to admit I never knew of the word "Aspie" until I saw this movie, and I've been diagnosed since age 9. The character of "Max" is a middle-aged, Jewish New Yorker, whose issues are diagnosed as Asperger Syndrome halfway through the movie. I have to say that the issues portrayed, while exaggerated, are very accurate. Max has difficulty reading other people, making or keeping friends, suffers from acute anxiety, and pays particular attention to certain things (in this case, the amount of cigarette butts on the streets, and chocolate). Something else I connected with was how Max found his favorite cartoon heartwarming, because the characters had everything he didn't.

The character of "Mary" is very sympathetic. She has issues that anybody can have, only her's are exasperated by the people around her. This included her critical, alcoholic mother and distant father, as well as a lack of human friends. However, her friendship with Max remains a pivotal source of inspiration for the rest of her life. So much so, that when she upsets him from afar, she almost considers giving up the rest of her life.

A trademark of Elliot's films is the use of narration. These narrations are distinguished by the timing and pace the speakers usually provide. And of course, Elliot's talent for stringing words together when certain effects are described. The next time I see this movie, I should take note of my favorite quotes.
On that note, I have to praise the voice over work.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favorite actors. His repertoire is all about characters, and keeping the audience believing them. His voice-over for Max is nothing like Hoffman's normal voice, but is a very realistic sound for this sort of character. Max sounds real, and his emotion is played out nicely through a deep, slightly congested, slightly Yiddish accented voice. All the praise in the world for Mr. Hoffman.
But with that, I also have to praise Toni Collette's portrayal of Mary, and Barry Humphries' narration.

The movie is stop-motion, although not as complex as Coraline or Wallace and Gromit. But that's not a bad thing at all. The stop-motion gives the movie is own universe. The characters are designed in Elliot's usual fashion, in which nothing is straight or perfectly sculpted. The design of the movie follows this very deliberately. It gives the impression of a flawed world. And this impression fits in well with how the main characters view the rest of the world outside their shells.
One of the film's executive producers introduced the film. He specifically stressed that everything on screen was real and tactile. This not only included puppets and sets, but also effects animation, such as rain and urination. This maintains a tradition with Adam Elliot's previous films, all of which were not only stop-motion, but had limited movement, and relied mostly quick little actions and the character's expressions, and very little concern for effects.

After the screening, I met with some friends and a couple of them asked me how I felt about the way Max was portrayed. I told them it was great, and totally understandable. Mr. Elliot certainly did his homework on the subject, and knew just how to express it. Everything about this film was well balanced. The visual style and the writing style, all worked hand in hand to bring these peculiar subjects to light in a way that is funny and appreciable.

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