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Unique, unsettling, but also quite moving - based on a true story about an unlikely friendship

  • Dec 10, 2009
Mary and Max is an independent claymation flick from Australia, with a darkly comic theme about a lonely and misunderstood 8-year-old girl who strikes up an unlikely and disturbing correspondence and friendship with a 48-year-old overweight depressive male diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. While that sounds unlikely enough as a topic for an animated film, what was truly unexpected was the moving power of its simple message, achieved without resorting to sentimentalism or cliche.

The film, apparently based on a true story, plays like Wallace and Gromit conceived by Oliver Sacks and imagined by David Lynch and Robert Crumb. The animated characters, who tend to be overweight with exaggerated melancholy expressions, are nevertheless enormously expressive - and the film seamlessly shifts from the muted colors of the rundown Australian suburb where Mary lives to the expressive black and white of Max's New York City.

Mary (Toni Collette) is a curious and lonely girl, whose father is unavailable and whose mother is an alcoholic kleptomaniac and whose neighbors are each in their own way inscrutable. Confronted by questions the adults around her are unwilling to answer, she selects Max's name at random from an American phonebook and writes an inquisitive letter to a complete stranger. Initially thrown for a loop by this unexpected query, Max detects a kindred spirit and responds to her letter with complete sincerity. So begins a peculiar correspondence, fraught throughout with misunderstanding but culminating in a lifelong friendship that is able to carry them both through a great deal of personal misfortune and tragedy.

The voice of Phillip Seymour Hoffman invests the character of Max with a deeply sincere confusion about the peculiar games that people play. A card carrying communist and atheist, he nevertheless wears the skullcap he wore as a child, when his mother taught him babies came from egg-laying rabbis. He is honest to a fault, incapable of saying the kinds of things people like to hear; his imaginary friend, a psychiatrist by the name of Mr. Ravioli, stopped speaking to him after his real psychiatrist convinced him he was no longer necessary.

Mary and Max was dark and tender and strange and disconcerting and lovely. Its simple theme, conveyed lightly and through dark circumstance, is captured in a concluding quotation by Ethel Mumford: "God gave us relatives. Thank God we can choose our friends."

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review by . June 16, 2013
posted in Movie Hype
I am skeptical of independent, "artsy" films. I find they try too hard to be different. Mary and Max fits into this category. That said, only an utterly cynical critic would fail to connect with the message at the heart of this movie, and I am not that critic. Mary and Max is weird, depressing, and overly indulgent of pessimism; it is also beautiful.            To summarize: one day, Mary Daisy Dinkle randomly selects and sends a letter to an address …
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Nathan Andersen ()
Ranked #28
I teach philosophy at Eckerd College, in Saint Petersburg, Florida.      I run an award-winning International Cinema series in Tampa Bay (, and am co-director of … more
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Mary and Max, a Claymation film by Academy Award-winning animator Adam Elliot (Harvie Krumpet), has just enough quirky oddity to distinguish it from Elliot's fiercest Claymation competitor, Aardman Animation (Wallace and Gromit).Mary and Maxtells the story of a 20-year pen pal friendship between an 8-year-old Australian goth girl, Mary Daisy Dinkle (Toni Collette), and 44-year-old New Yorker Max Horowitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The film's humor throughout is rooted in a general malaise that afflicts both characters. Mary, who has an alcoholic mother, a dull father who works in a matchstick factory, and a grandfather who committed suicide by drinking ammonia, is quite fed up with her ensuing adolescence. Fortunately, she reaches to the right person, an agoraphobic man with Asperger's syndrome who wants friends but has no clue how to acquire them. As the story progresses, years lapse and the two learn to rely on each other in more intimate ways until conflicts arise that add tension to an already-packed narrative. The animation style, done mostly in a gray to black palette with an overall droopy look, enhances the melancholic feeling that exudes from this intriguing story. Funny details, too, make it suitable for kids, such as Max's never-ending passion for chocolate hot dogs. While the letters are shared with the viewer, read aloud by either Mary or Max, one discovers universal anxieties and how they can be remedied through friendship. When Mary asks, "Have you ever been ...
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