When you think of claymation, the first thing that might pop into your head is probably not a feature film. A pre-school series such as Pingu perhaps, but not something that you intend to watch over the course of an hour and a half or more. For the record, claymation is a form of stop-motion animation, not a different type of animation altogether.
I know that this films has been out for a while, but it was only the other night that I finally got the chance to sit down and watch it, and I am pleased to report that it exceeded all my expectations and then some.
Admittedly, the idea of the story did not exactly speak volumes to me. A tale of a young Australian girl being pen-friends with a 50-something New Yorker does not exactly warm the cockles of the heart, especially at this time of year when there’s snow everywhere.
However, if you look past the superficial skin of the story, you will be amazed at how deep it really goes. For one, this is a story about character. Both main protagonists are clearly contorted, confused and seemingly alone in this world, and yet both find solace in each other in different ways.
The film begins in Australia with a background to Mary’s life; her alcoholic mother, her aloof father, her agoraphobic neighbour, her pet rooster and the boy next door with the terrible stutter. In the middle of all of this, we get a glimpse into the life of a little girl who is isolated and in in the extreme sense, sort of abused as an unwelcome intrusion into her parent’s lives.
On the other side of the world, Max is a loner who sees the world in a very literal sense. He is easily confused by the actions of others and as such, he often lets his anger get to him. He is emotionally fragile, and like Mary, had a similarly traumatic childhood.
Both seemingly disparate characters do share something in common, their love of chocolate and The Noblets, a TV show. With these two similarities, the two develop a friendship maintained only through letters (the film is set in the 1970s) through thick and thin.
I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but there are some dramatic twists and turns that have implications for both characters. What I can say though, is that the ending is carried out in a very suitable way that left me feeling empty at the time, like the directors skimped out, but after having thought about it for a while, I came to the conclusion that it is one of the better endings I have seen in a long time. It brings a definite conclusion to things and it is clear how much each character benefited from all the correspondence over the years.
The animation is superb, I cannot say any more. The limited use of colour means that you are much more focused on the animation rather than the look of things. There are plenty of visual gags that are in that subtle, British style, in other words you have to pay close attention to what’s going on in the background.
The direction is excellent, with every shot clearly having been thought through thoroughly (try saying that 10 times in a row!). The quirkiness of the film stands out in the actions of the characters and the way each shot is used to help explain a character’s emotions or thoughts.
Although I am averse to celebrity voice-actors, I will say that Philip Seymour Hoffman does an excellent job of portraying Max. You can hear the weariness in his voice and the way he dictates his letters to himself suggest that he is a man who has a lot on his mind. As for the other characters, they are all performed to perfection (lots of alliteration in this post today, eh?).
In the end, Mary & Max did not elicit an enormous amount of emotion from me, but it did leave me immensely satisfied that I had seen an excellent film that is clearly a cut above many other movies that are billed as emotional dramas. Looks are not everything and I am confident that if you can get past Max’s sour puss on the poster, you will be rewarded by a very good film indeed.