In the mid-1970's, a homely, friendless Australian girl of 8 picks a name out of a Manhattan phone book and writes to him; she includes a chocolate bar. She's Mary Dinkle, the only child of an alcoholic mother and a distracted father. He's Max Horowitz, an overweight man with Asperger's, living alone in New York. He writes back, with chocolate. Thus begins a 20-year correspondence, interrupted by a stay in an asylum and a few misunderstandings. Mary falls in love with a neighbor, saves money to have a birthmark removed and deals with loss. Max has a friendship with a neighbor, tries to control his weight, and finally gets the dream job. Will the two ever meet face to face? Written by
Refreshing and engaging given the home-grown talent involved.
In Australia in 1976, a young girl named Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore) is a lonely child looking for a friend. She lives with both her parents but her mother is a chain smoking drunk and a thief and her father, who works in a factory putting the strings on teabags, would rather spend time with his collection of dead birds. Mary remains curious about life and finds the address of an American living in New York. She writes him a letter to become his pen pal. The recipient is Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a severely overweight Jewish hypochondriac and full-time no-hoper. Gradually, as they send each other letters, Mary and Max's relationship develops and we begin to learn more about their past and their heartache and insecurities of being alone.
Following the short animated film, Harvey Krumpet, director Adam Elliot has constructed his first full feature claymation picture, displaying as much skill as many of the major mainstream studios. The film has been immaculately designed, with many tiny details and features placed into the sets, all of which would have taken many countless hours to mould. The lighting and colour scheme too are significant to the unique look of the film, ranging from highly saturated to almost entirely black and white, to reflect the self-depreciative and sometimes gloomy tone of the narrative. It is a film made of great patience and craftsmanship.
Yet the strongest asset of the film is the humour of the screenplay. Whereas many mainstream animated films such as Shrek and The Incredibles adopt a great deal of hilarity from their pop culture references, Elliot has an eye for the simpler things in life. From the way Mary and Max share their eating habits of chocolate hot dogs, to how Max describes his past jobs, including a street cleaner and a member of the Communist Party, the humour of the film remains truly original, bizarre and often very witty. Elliot excels in his ability write about the most normal things and then turn them on their heads, or degrade his miserable characters in the most hilarious way. Yet there are moments of poignancy too, such as where Mary describes her difficulty at school as she is teased for the birthmark on her forehead, that provide the film's screenplay with a subtext - no matter how simple about isolation and the need for friends.
The use of Barry Humphries' voice over to convey much of the story is initially highly annoying and intrusive. In the opening scenes it feels overly used and distracting from the story and the detail of the scenes. Gradually though, as the film moves from its opening exposition, the voice over is used slightly less and its scarcity achieves the storybook quality and poetry that it deserves. Barry Humphries reads his lines beautifully. The rest of the voice actors too are splendid. Philip Seymour Hoffman is again in fine form, adding a slight accent to his voice and the decision to model his voice with a character of a similar physique fits nicely. He is quickly become one of the most diverse actors in the world. Bethany Whitmore as the young Mary is equally impressive too and her voice has a real innocence about it. Toni Collette and Eric Bana also have much smaller roles too. It is a well thought out voice cast and while some of the minor characters verge on grotesque, there is still a real sweetness about this film that carries it.
Elliot has described his film as being suitable for everyone. This is rather optimistic. I don't know how particularly young children, who have been conditioned by the more mainstream animated titles, would appreciate the film. It is extremely funny for the most part, but there is also a real sense of gloom around these characters that might not be as appealing to children. And towards the end, the film, despite being well under two hours, begins to lose a bit of momentum as the characters wave in and out of their depleted lives. Perhaps the films message of learning to live with your flaws and accepting the path life has given you is something that children, even if they don't entirely understand now though, needs to be seen anyway. Regardless, it remains a mostly sharp and funny film that many will find refreshing and engaging given the home-grown talent involved.
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