The 2009 stop motion animation indie drama Mary and Max is somewhat of a strange case. It’s ranked among the highest-rated titles of all time on IMDb, but it’s not a particularly well-known film. That disparity is readily recognizable in the film’s box office numbers, which posits it as a financial flop that only managed to earn back $1.7 million of its $8.2 million budget, despite near-universal critical acclaim. Perhaps the divide between its critical & financial accomplishments is a question of tone. The sole feature film credit of stop motion animator Adam Elliot, Mary and Max adopts the visual format & storybook narration of a children’s film, but it’s, at heart, an emotionally merciless drama that touches upon, among other things: mental illness, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy, atheism, war crimes, repressed homosexuality, obesity, and the endless cycle of poverty. It’s likely that the film didn’t do particularly well at the box office because it’s difficult to market an animated feature about heartbreaking loneliness, depression, despair, and the search for human connection among the disenfranchised. I’m getting choked up right now just mulling over the film’s themes, so easy to see why it might’ve been a difficult sell as a comedy (however black) & a fun night at the movies. All that being said, Mary and Max is a masterful work in the stop motion medium, easily one of the best examples of the format I’ve ever seen. It’s a shame it couldn’t have turned that achievement into financial success, though, or we might’ve had a few more Adam Elliot features in the six years since its release.
Detailing the strictly-epistolary friendship between two total strangers, a young Australian girl & a middle aged man in New York City, Mary and Max relies heavily on storybook-style narration to move its story along between its back & forth letter reading. This narrative structure doesn’t allow much room for complicated plot maneuvering or a fast-paced momentum. Mary and Max, as its title suggests, is more of a two-handed character study than a whirlwind of action & consequence. Mary is a young girl with an alcoholic mother & an emotionally reclusive father. Initially described as looking like mud & poo, Mary is somewhat of an outcast, self-conscious of her appearance, bored, and alone. Max is a lonely, atheist man of Jewish descent who has difficulty navigating the modern world due to his struggles with Asperger’s Syndrome. It seems at first like they might have very little in common besides the drab greys & browns that define their respective worlds & their shared love of a children’s show called The Noblets. As their friendship deepens & is challenged by decades of hard-fought battles with mental illness & life at large, though, a remarkably rewarding swell of emotion begins to elevate the film miles above the basic precociousness & impressive handmade craft stop motion automatically commands as a medium.
For a film loaded with fart jokes & gags involving bird anuses, Mary and Max is a remarkable achievement in emotional provocation. Toni Collette (who I’ve recently been binge-watching in United States of Tara) does an excellent job voicing the adult Mary & Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who, of course, everyone has been inadvertently binge-watching in quality work for the last two decades & mourning in more recent years) is even more of a treasure as the deeply-complicated Max, although neither personality is especially essential to the film’s charm. The real crux to Mary & Max‘s perfection as a small stakes drama/black comedy is in director Adam Elliot’s nuanced characterization of his titular leads & in the finely detailed visual world he made by hand (with help, I’m sure) in a painstakingly meticulous method/dying art. I like to imagine a world where Mary and Max was a wild financial success that allowed Elliot to immediately produce a long string of other feature films, the same way the success of Coraline, released the same year, launched Laika Studios. As is, I’m happy that this pitch black gem was ever produced in the first place. It’s not often that an animated feature about the importance of “real friendship” is this well constructed & this reluctant to play by the rules of its medium/genre. Just writing about the film’s emotional severity is making me tear up in the retrospection, which is a clear sign that Elliot got something significantly right here, even if that something was a difficult commodity to monetize.
Side Note: You can go ahead & include Mary and Max as yet another indication that no place in time has ever loved ABBA quite as much as 1970s Australia. The ABBA poster in Mary’s bedroom feels more significant than a mere callback to Toni Collette’s starring role in Muriel’s Wedding. It’s part of a larger Australia Loves ABBA narrative that I swear is A Thing. It makes more sense every day that ABBA: The Movie was set in Australia. It’s the band’s home away from Sweden.