In the constant effort to broaden my horizons I’ve decided to start going through IMDB’s Top 250 Movies of All Time. I plan to sporadically watch a movie off of the list and review it on this blog. With any luck I’ll stumble upon a few new favorites, but I fully expect to find a handful of titles that are significantly overrated as well. This week’s movie was a tale of long distance kinship, Mary and Max (2009). This clay-animated feature is currently at number 170 on the list.
Mary and Max revolves around two pen pals. The movie opens on eight-year-old Mary in Australia. Mary spends her schooldays being ridiculed by her classmates for possessing an uncomely birthmark that resides smack-dab in the middle of her forehead. In the evenings she comes home to an aloof father and a kleptomaniac mother, nei ther of whom share much in common with their daughter. Despite having people around her, for all intents and purposes, Mary is alone. After subsisting for quite some time on sweetened condensed milk, companionship from her pet rooster, and the escapism provided by her favorite cartoon show,The Noblets, Mary eventually decides she needs more human interaction. She picks a name from an American phonebook and decides to cold write a candid letter to a complete stranger.
Luckily for Mary, the name she picked in the phonebook belonged to Max J. Horowitz. Max is morbidly obese, over-the-hill, and, like Mary, forlorn. Being riddled with social and mental problems has made it difficult for Max to make friends over the course of his life. Much of what cripples Max can be blamed on his anxiety in social situations, but equally as burdensome is Max’s inability to understand human behavior. Mary’s letter immediately grabs Max’s attention because he too is desperate for a friend. In fact, having a friend is one of the few things Max would like to achieve during his life. The two instantly bond over their struggle to escape solitude.
Mary and Max tell their respective tales through narrated voiceovers. Rarely do any characters have face-to-face conversations with one another over the course of the movie. Instead, the plot unravels as the two outcasts confide in each other in a series of open and honest letters. Both reveal themselves to be somewhat damaged by extenuating circumstances, however, neither sees themself as victims. Whether they are being ridiculed by others or simply confused by their surroundings, Max and Mary’s monologues demonstrate time and time again each character’s resolve. The two might as well be aliens from another planet given how they see the world around them, which I found quite endearing because who hasn’t felt misunderstood or isolated before? Though the tone of the film stays somewhat grim throughout its entirety, watching both Mary and Max triumph against their world was delightful. Every victory, no matter how small, tended to put a smile on my face.
As far as stop-motion animated films go, Mary and Max feels unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. That’s saying something considering that Claymation already has a very unique style of its own. Unlike other movies of the same ilk, Mary and Max is mostly absent of any flash and whimsy. Max’s sequences in particular are largely shot in black and white. No matter what your feelings might be about bright, vibrant colors when it comes to consuming your entertainment, I would vouch for this movie’s muted palette. The lack of color drew more attention to the intricate details of the Claymation, and the somewhat dreary ambience ended up giving Max and Mary’s an avant-garde quality that I appreciated.
It bears mentioning that the voice acting is also superb. As the credits began to roll I was somewhat stunned to find that notable Hollywood talent had lent their voices to the film. The standout here was Max, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Most probably wouldn’t be shocked to hear that the Academy Award winning actor turned in another outstanding performance. What did surprise me though was that Hoffman was unrecognizable as Max. Even after going back to listen to some more of Max’s affable, monosyllabic narration, I was still unconvinced that it was Hoffman. It’s remarkable how he simply disappears behind Max, and it saddens me that we won’t get to hear the talented actor bring more animated characters to life.
I’ve tried to think of criticisms of Mary and Max, and I’d be lying if I said it was an easy thing for me to do. There are a few instances where the characters’ letters seem to get a little longwinded. The story may be a little thin for some also, but I enjoyed the characters far too much to ever take any issue with the Mary and Max’s pacing. I guess a word of warning should be given to those who like their animated adventures to give them the warm and fuzzies. Mary and Max delivers on emotion, but it’s not exactly going to fill you with sunshine and rainbows either. That’s not to say you won’t find yourself laughing or smiling throughout; it’s just that, for the most part, this is a somewhat darker tale when compared to its genre brethren. Don’t let that scare you away though. This is an exercise in empathy that everyone should consider taking part in.
So now I’m left with the question of whether the fans at IMDB ranked this film accordingly. I think the movie gets a bit of a bump because it has flown largely under the radar for most people. Mary and Max didn’t receive a theatrical release in many parts of the world, including the U.S., which has probably led way to somewhat of a cult following. That being said, if I were to try and make a list of my own top 250 movies, I suspect that Mary and Max would make my list. It’s clever, it’s touching, it can be hilariously dark, and it’s unlike anything I’ve personally seen before. If you consider yourself a bit morbid, a bit morose, or a bit misunderstood you should check this one out. While neither Mary or Max are brooding heroes, their vulnerable honesty makes them far braver then most characters you see in movies these days, and that’s worth seeing.