“When I was young, I invented an invisible friend called Mr Ravioli. My psychiatrist says I don’t need him anymore, so he just sits in the corner and reads.”
I remember Mary and Max showing at Edinburgh International Film Festival a few years ago, where it received very positive reviews. Unfortunately, trying to market a stop motion, mostly narrated film about two pen-pals is not necessarily the easiest thing to do, yet despite its limited cinematic release it’s still managed to enter into IMDB’s top 250 films – quite an achievement, all things considered, and a testament to writer-director Adam Elliot, who has created a movie that is both heart-warming and utterly devastating, desperately sad yet very funny.
Mary and Max is almost entirely narrated by Barry Humphries, whose matter-of-fact, warm tone is perfect to tell the two characters’ stories. He tells the tale much as one would read a children’s book, but the contents are far darker and more adult than any kid’s story; the bleak upbringing that Mary endures and the isolation surrounding Max are somewhat tempered by the calm, straight-forward language and Humphries’ voice. The two lonely souls meet by chance, when eight year old Mary, living in the Melbourne suburbs with a rarely-seen father and an alcoholic mother, picks a name out of an American phone book at random so she can write and ask where American babies come from (her mother has told her that Australian babies are found in the bottom of pints of beer). The name she selects turns out to be that of Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a morbidly obese, awkward man living in New York. The two bond through their correspondence – two kindred spirits, living on opposite sides of the world.
Central to the film is the ways in which Mary and Max help each other – she views the world as a child does, and he responds to that in much the same way. While Max’s awkwardness is obvious from the outset, the extent of his problems are far more subtly introduced. It’s not until perhaps half way through the movie that mental illness is specifically mentioned, and his eventual diagnosis will come as no surprise. Yet it’s beautifully handled; the filmmakers’ never ask their viewers to take pity on the characters and, instead, it’s the friendship, and the ways in which that friendship both helps and challenges each character, that is most important.
Visually, Mary and Max is a treat – a wonderfully realised stop motion world with oddly maudlin-looking people. Mary’s world, the Australian suburbs, comprises of various warm brown tones; Max, living in an old tenement flat in New York, is surrounded by a monochrome city – the only splashes of colour in the film, and in their lives, are sporadic dots of red (the flirtatious lips of a woman at Max’s “over-eaters anonymous” group; a pompom Mary sends Max). The colour scheme perfectly reflects the tone of the film and the emotions of its central characters, who are further complemented by the beautiful animation, which is easily as distinctive and polished as Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s stop-motion, and as humorous as Aardman’s (Selick’s Coraline, a nightmarish, wonderful film released in the same year as this, garnered an Oscar nomination; despite Elliot’s previous Academy success for short film Harvie Krumpet in 2003, Mary and Max enjoyed no such recognition).
While it is Humphries’ voice that carries us through the years, as Mary grows older and Max grows wider, both Toni Collette (as the older Mary) and Hoffman should be commended – Hoffman in particular brings Max to life. The voice-over narration, initially disconcerting, adds to the lyrical, story-book style of the film, carefully commenting on the visuals at times, bringing a certain degree of tongue-in-cheek irony to the story. It is, by the way, inspired by Elliot’s own pen-pal correspondence; he has invented Mary (who shares more than a little with the title character in Muriel’s Wedding, also starring Toni Collette) but the friendship at the centre of the film is genuine. Like Mary, Elliot has yet to meet his pen-pal. It is perhaps this real-life inspiration that has ensured such humanity and warmth to the film, despite its rather bleak subject matter. Elliot’s script, with its moments of black humour and its often childlike response to events and situations, delicately ensures that the depressing elements of the story are lightened by some much needed comedy that never threatens to compromise the overall tone of the film. I laughed and giggled, then spent a substantial amount of time crying. Yet although it’s heartbreaking, Mary and Max is, in the end, full of hope – it’s a cliché to say “life-affirming,” but despite my tears, I found my faith in humanity restored.