Review: Mary & Mary

“Unfortunately, in America, babies are not found in cola cans. I asked my mother when I was four, and she said they came from eggs laid by rabbis. If you aren’t Jewish, they’re laid by Catholic nuns. If you’re an atheist, they’re laid by dirty, lonely prostitutes. “


I almost didn’t scribble a haphazard review for the redoubtable Mary and Max. Sometimes you stumble across something amazing that hasn’t crossed into the mainstream and a selfish part of you wants to hold it tight in the sure and certain knowledge that you and your circle of friends currently feature prominently among the select handful people to have seen the film.

It’s nice being part of the in-crowd that gets to experience the thrill of secret knowledge and there’s a direct correlation with the scale of a secret and the value it’s ascribed.  Here it’s about the same as being in your own special Cult of Wonderful, but with less chance of the FBI turning up to ruin the party. Yep people, it’s that good and this is why.

Mary and Max is a darkly comic claymation tale of two accidental pen pals whose connection by a tenuous series of correspondence reshapes their lives for better and for worse through a shared love of confectionery and a need to understand an often incomprehensible world. Don’t be fooled by its animated format, this one’s not for kiddies with its exploration of mature themes and repeated use of irony.

Mary is a lonely, neglected child living in the wastelands of 1970-80s Australian suburbia. Here she is bullied and bereft of family affection. New Yorker Max is lonely, overweight, and suffers from stress, depressive tendencies, counseling and the current poster child of the autistic spectrum, Asperger’s Syndrome. He lives in isolation amongst the multitudes, barely holding down a job and an apartment.

We follow the pair as they endure and develop through a parade of misunderstandings, unusual happenings and the frankly bizarre. Social realism may be stretched a little thin, but their surreal, off kilter world is not too far from our own in strangeness. The humour forms an intrinsic part of the weirdness, no quickfire pop culture references here, it comes from a deeper place replete with black humour and the deadpan delivery of some very strange lines of dialogue.

Both of our protagonists are classic outsiders and their need for human contact but on their own terms is one of the film’s overarching themes. Neither is held up as a grotesque for our entertainment but presented as proper if flawed individuals to allow us to connect with them on a more human level. They each rise above the misfit cliche to offer a sweetly innocent but very different view of the world.

The animation has the same slightly rudimentary feel found in those claymation champions Wallace and Gromit, but it carves its own unique visual style ideally suited to the story that unfolds. It shares the same loving attention to detail as the cracking, family friendly funarchy of the Aardman duo, albeit one painted in darker more downbeat hues to match the more adult themes on display.

Each of the two locales draws from a very specific palette, shades of brown and beige for Australia, greyscale for New York. This partly reflects how the character’s view of their surroundings, denoting the drabness and fear/uncertainty each feel regarding their surroundings.  The sporadic use of colour is skilfully folded into the universe to highlight its absence elsewhere and on occasion pick out certain objects and themes. It’s hard to fully appreciate the amount of effort it takes to craft a film like this, but the time and love invested in the project shines through.

I can’t really comment on the fidelity of the work in terms of those with Asperger’s, but it feels about right from my limited appreciation of the subject, given that all movie characters service the story first before any need to be wholly representative. Max can just about cope but he is not the high functioning savant used to get the autistic quirks without many of the drawbacks to everyday interactions with an often confusing world.

For opening minutes as the narration by Dame Edna Everage (sorry, Barry Humphries) kicks off self-indulgent fashion, I was worried that it nothing more than a self consciously quirky curio. A baseless fear as it turned out. The quality of the voice work, the depth and pathos attached to the characters and film’s unique style is immersive. The humour and darkness are expertly balanced throughout and in my very humble opinion the ending is frankly beautiful.

Mary and Max is a bittersweet tale that constantly verges on the brilliant; the sublime and the ridiculous rolled into one. Catch it in the right mood and and you will soon be swept willingly into their alternate universe. Join the cult!

Rating 87/100

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~ by Jack on May 15, 2011.

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