Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mary and Max (2009)

Directed by: Adam Elliot
Runtime: 1hr 32mins
Netflix, Google Play, Amazon Instant
5/5*

When you think about writing a story you ask yourself, "is there a lot of actions? or is there a lot of thinking and descriptions." If there's a lot of actions you have a movie, if there's a lot of thinking and descriptions you probably have a novel. Ok, so that's not always the case, but when it comes to making a film about pen pals writing to each other and describing their lives, it could be hard to imagine the visual accompaniment.

That clearly wasn't the case for Adam Elliot. His 2009 film Mary and Max is a visually unique stop motion animated film about sad lonely people finding solace in friendship on the other side of the world.
"Mary Dinkles eye's were the color of muddy puddles. Her birthmark, the color of poo."
Beginning in Australia in 1976, we meet 8 year old Mary Daisy Dinkle (young Mary: Bethany Whitmore; grown up Mary: Toni Collette). Her world is presented in near sepia tone. A very dingy shade of brown. Max's world in New York is presented in grey scale.

They both watch the Noblets, a cartoon where everyone has oodles of friends. And it makes them wish that they too had friends. Making friends doesn't come easy for these two though. They've both got their own struggles in relating to other people, and they both find other humans endlessly illogical.

Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who's vocal performance is so good you might not recognize him) suffers from depression, obesity, and aspurgers. He finds many things confusing and stressful, and has a hard time communicating with others. When Mary randomly selects his name out of a phone book to become her pen pal, Max has an anxiety attack. Each new letter from her triggers the type of attack he'd have with any new, strange situation he encounters. However, once the attack is over he decides to write back.

They both describe themselves down to the minute, humorous, and even sad details of their lives. Mary takes the opportunity to ask him questions she's always wanted to know about life and the world. The type of questions it might be easier to ask a stranger. Her inquisitive nature reminds of what it's like to be young. When you're still discovering the world, and lots of things don't make sense. Chief among them the strange, and funny things adults tell young kids, that we believe long after we should know better (like where babies come from). She explains that people at school make fun of her, and Max is all too familiar. He's able to relate with her even though it means he has to struggle through bad memories.

Over the years their bond becomes a type of therapy for each other. Mary's parents pass away, she goes to college and falls in love with a boy, and gets pregnant. Meanwhile Max maintains his low key lifestyle in New York.

The film takes on depression, and asperger's syndrome in a way that's real without making a caricature out of it. They're people with tough, sad lives in desperate need of a friend. As they get older, life takes its toll on them and everything and everyone they love. They find they need each other more and more. There's certainly something beautiful about the way these two strange characters befriend each other, the way they see the world, and how they help each other through life's toughest times. Even when events keep them from writing to each other, they find there's just no replacing a true friendship. Especially for these lonesome people. Learning to accept each other, and themselves for who they are, as imperfect as they might be, is key to survival. We can't choose who we are, or who our relatives are, or where, or in what way we are raised, but we can choose our friends.

Despite the darker subject matter, the film never becomes too grief stricken to be enjoyable. There is a fun light-hearted nature to the opening of the film, and we quickly become invested in these characters. Every time I see this film it makes me wish that I could find such humor in the everyday, and that I could find such clever ways to describe the more dull common things in life. It's certainly not the type of animated film most are used to. It certainly deals with tougher subjects than you'd expect to find in an animated film. It's not for younger audiences. But it manages to present its characters in a light, airy, but serious way that's entertaining without losing respect for them and their struggles.

Well I love this film. I could go on and on about how clever and humorous the writing is, but it simply needs to be taken in. It goes to some pretty dark places, but  there's beauty in the struggles of man. Particularly when we find ways to overcome them together. I like that these characters live on opposite sides of the world and yet they're not so different. Their similarities allow them to form a strong friendship, their differences allow them to support each other.

As the great Roger Ebert once said, "the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us identify with the other people who are sharing this journey with us.” Mary and Max is a great example of a film that lets us understand, and empathize with different people.

It's one of the most unique films of the last 10 years. The stop motion animation is similar to that of a Tim Burton film, although less creepy, and more comical. It's one of the most cleverly written and constructed films I've ever seen. Elliot manages to tells a story that's poignant, intelligent, touching, and simply beautiful. Elliot has a unique method of story telling. The film stays keenly aware of its narration and audience. I love the music in the film, most of which is provided by Penguin Cafe Orchestra. The few extra songs include an instrumental version of Frank Sinatra's "That's Life," and a version of "Que Sera Sera." They both further the theme of accepting life and whatever comes of it. The future is not ours to see, thankfully we have friendships to help us get through it.