Let me begin by saying that this is one of the best animated films I have EVER watched. I watched it in 2012 and I still have not been able to get it off my mind. What am I about to write will do no justice to what the film is about! Yet, I am going to do it to get it off my system. The mixture of artistic sophistication and emotional crudeness cancel each other out. Mary and Max is a moving celebration of oddness and friendship. I talk about this because animation often gets sloughed off as a means to use brainwashing and bright colors to market toys to drooling children. But there are some very mature and heartbreaking cartoons that are never meant for children to watch.
Adam Elliot won an Oscar in 2004 with his beautifully depressing animated short “Harvie Krumpet,” about the tumultuous life of a sad immigrant with social deviancy issues. The logical extension of this work became Mary and Max, what we get is a tapestry of tragic and comic snapshots from the lives of two lonely people. It comprises far too many grown-up themes, including sexuality; substance abuse, body image problems, severe depression, Asperger’s diagnosis, and suicide are just some of the threads that Elliot weaves. Based on his own experience of a decades-long pen pal relationship with an “Aspie” And so Elliot gets past our defenses and tells us the story of how this unlikely friendship started, was tested, and ultimately flowered. This strangely artful film is a paean in honor of friendship.
So, Many of the characters drink and smoke all the time and the protagonist pen pals (who are eight and 44 when the movie begins) discuss everything from how babies are conceived to bullying to loneliness to atheism. Ultimately, this is a completely unsentimental but beautiful look at a highly unusual, inter-generational, long-distance friendship. Its main characters speak with adorable accents, and funny-looking animals are involved – but “Wallace and Gromit” this ain’t. It’s a friendship that both Max and Mary desperately need. While we are not all overweight lonely children or Aspies, we all know that loneliness of wanting someone to understand and accept us. We all know the isolation, sometimes actual but often self-imposed, that life brings us. So in a sense we are all broken or incomplete until we find a way to share our world with another. We find the courage to share our neediness, and are met with the joy of knowing there is another. This joy often gets expressed in helping, listening, and sharing stories. What a gift to not be alone. (Give yourself some quality time though). It is definitely worth a watch to form your own opinion.
This movie is at times funny and at times heartbreaking and real. They are not always likable, and they’re definitely not always relatable (few people are as relentlessly teased throughout childhood or socially awkward as adults as these two), but audiences will grow to love their innocence, scars, and wounds. It’s their flaws and foibles (Mary flirts with her neighbor only to be told she has poop on her shoe; Max exercises self-loathing by stuffing himself with chocolate before heading to overeating anonymous group) that endear them to the viewer.
The letters sent back and forth are so beautifully simple and honest that it’s no wonder why Max feels compelled to lovingly iron, laminate, and save each one. They ask each other anything and everything — from the very first query about where children come from (she thinks it’s from the bottom of a cola can or beer bottle, as her grandfather informed her; he was told rabbis, nuns, or “dirty prostitutes” laid eggs that hatched into babies) to whether he’s ever been bullied or she has a pet kangaroo (yes and no). Collette and Hoffman are so evocative with their voices (he especially, with his Yiddish-spiked New York accent). As they narrate their long rambling letters to each other, we see their flashbacks and thoughts come to life. We should all be so lucky to have even one friendship as true as Mary and Max’s.
It’s an unusual film, in the best sense of the word. I restrain myself from spelling out the story so that you can take out ninety minutes to watch it. Like Mary and Max’s friendship, this movie is an act of tenderness that will linger long after the closing credits roll.