There’s something unearthly and hilarious, all too familiar and vividly unhuman, about caricatured claymation when it’s done well, and that qualmy, hypnotizing something oozes out of Adam Elliot’s “Mary and Max” like a ruptured yolk. Elliott, an Oscar winner for animated shorts, is easily the peer of the Aardman herd, and his textures and visual wit are relentlessly fascinating, scene after scene — if he could claymate my credit card bill, I’d pay it twice.
But “Mary and Max” is also rather shocking in the depth of its story and the frankness of its scalding subject matter. The film was given a minimal theatrical release in the U.S., and despite its dazzling ingenuity it is not difficult to see why — this is a movie focused on a child, but it is not for children, and without a reliable Pixar demographic spread, to whom would it be sold? An epic, bittersweet tall tale about child neglect and alcoholism and New Globalism and Asperger’s and loneliness and death, Elliott’s film is based on a true story — it would have to be true, to be this unlikely and specific and grim. Is this the first claymation film based on a real-life news item? Why would there ever be another?
Elliott’s strategy is Aesop-like — the entire story is told as a river of wizened, sympathetic narration (read by Barry Humphries), rich with an understatement and irony that complements the film’s handmade visuals like sugar in very black coffee. Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore) is an eight-year-old Australian girl lost on her own in a scruffy suburb with a drunkard kleptomaniac mom, no money and no friends.
She has an overactive imagination, and she cares for herself, badly, and is eventually motivated to make a friend by picking a name out of the Manhattan phone book at the post office. The name she nabs, sending off a letter of questions and a candy bar, belongs to Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an obese, isolated 44-year-old with debilitating Asperger’s and eating habits (chocolate bar hot dogs) that make Mary’s (condensed milk with a spoon) look robust. A correspondence, as they say, begins, and lasts years.
So far so good, but look at Elliott’s bum’s rush of visual ideas — Mary is a pear-shaped midget with button eyes, but Max is a masterpiece, a squashed pumpkin of a man with a pin head, the jaw of a humpback, a visage stricken in a permanent state of nervous worry, and giant, sweaty, shuddery eyeballs that run the risk, when the world becomes a little unpredictable, of rolling right out of their loose sockets. Elliott has a gift for luridly intense portrayals of anxiety, and his puppets have fabulously neurotic faces.
Every character and animal is “drawn” for maximum impact (Elliott’s cats, chickens and fish are all just as baffled at the world as the humans), and while Australia comes in 15 shades of excrement, Manhattan is a colorless urban nightmare that would fit in to a chapter of “Sin City.”
Add to this Hoffman’s brilliantly affected, disjointed Noo Yawk reading of Max’s letters, which are just as learned and wordy as they are gnarled up with Max’s handicapped worldview, and “Mary and Max” is nothing if not an accumulation of a thousand eloquent, wickedly imagined textural details, and those details are just as funny as they are convincing and resonant.
Mary grows up, of course (into Toni Collette’s sparely used voice), and the epistolary relationship expands, deepens, complicates, self-destructs and heals, and life deals both of the eponymous misfits a big ration of shit. Best not to spoil it — but be prepared for nastiness and cruelty, depicted as if it were a fairy tale. Though tragic, the film ends up exhilarating and buoyant, thanks to Elliott’s unfailing inventive energy.