The opening night slot at Sundance is customarily considered one of doom, and in that tradition “Mary and Max” is a disappointment, though just a mild one. The film, animator Adam Elliot’s first feature, has many of the elements and motifs of his splendid, award-winning shorts — a distinctive portraiture-inspired look, heavy voiceover, characters with mental or physical disabilities, misspellings, insulting newspaper headlines, accident-prone pets — while demonstrating why, as it is, Elliot’s style is better kept to a briefer form.
“Mary and Max” flips between the lives of its title characters, a lonely seven-year-old Australia girl with a birthmark on her forehead and neglectful parents and an equally lonely 44-year-old obese New York man with Asperger’s. Mary picks Max’s name by chance out of the phonebook and writes to ask him questions about America, and despite the fact that she unknowingly pushes him into several anxiety attacks, the two establish a pen-pal friendship that lasts decades, over the deaths of family members and friends, stays in the mental ward, a marriage, a lottery win and the publication of a book. Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman voice the pair, with Barry Humphries intoning the narration.
Characters don’t talk much in Adam Elliot’s stop motion creations, not to each other. They instead often just look to the camera as the narrative happens to them, with seemingly no more say in the matter than anyone watching — they’re reenacting someone else’s memory of them. Like animated snapshots, scenes pass by, adding up to whole lives that neither equal easy anecdotes nor drift by without a point. Elliot has an eye for odd little dark or droll details that give his stories a gleam of melancholy genuineness. But in “Mary and Max,” those details stack up until his characters become grotesques: Mary’s father drowns while treasure hunting at the beach; Max accidentally kills a mime when his A/C unit falls out of the wall of his crumbling apartment; Mary’s husband runs off with a New Zealand sheep farmer. The story acquires a macabre undertone that’s not suited to its own rambling structure. Mary and Max begin as believable misfits with not-outlandish misfortunes in their lives, but soon start to seem like something out of Edward Gorey.
There are moments of loveliness — Australia is done in warm shades of brown, Mary’s favorite color, and New York in greyscale with splashes of red — and others of emotional wonder, from the watching of a treasured cartoon in the rain to an improvised gift of tears. But “Mary and Max” does feel like a short that continues on for an hour and a half with little forward motion, until you reach the somber but not unexpected ending and realize how far you’ve come.
“Mary and Max” currently has no U.S. distribution. See all of IFC.com’s Sundance coverage here.
[Photo: “Mary and Max,” Icon Entertainment International, 2009]