If the world had never discovered writer/director/designer Adam Elliot and nobody had seen the semi-autobiographical short films through which he honed and cultivated his peculiar form of animation – Brother, Cousin, Uncle and the Oscar-winning Harvey Krumpet – Elliot’s full-length picture debut Mary and Max would have come as something of a shock: a compelling and emotionally gripping film told using plasticine figurines. Like much of his work it is a stunning achievement, bold and audacious in some senses and lowly and unassuming in others.

Inspired by a real-life pen pal relationship Elliot began 25 years ago with a man in New York, the story is structured around correspondence between the titular characters. Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced as a child by Bethany Whitmore and as an adult by Toni Collette) is a lonely 8-year-old with thick glasses, a gentle demeanour and a birthmark “the colour of poo” on her forehead. Her father works at a local tea factory – he attaches tea strings to tea bags – and her sherry-supping, chain-smoking mother is a kleptomaniac; she claims the reason she stuffs things up her dress is to save on plastic bags. One day at the post office Mary randomly tears out a page from an international phone book and writes a letter to Max (voice of Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who reacts by huddling in the corner of his apartment and convulsing with fear. We learn that Max is an anxious type managing a range of issues. But he soon musters the courage to write back and explains the gist of his life so far. He is an atheist, for example. He loves eating ‘chocolate hotdogs’. He goes to ‘Overeaters Anonymous.’ He’s scared of women. He has Asperger’s Syndrome.

Mary and MaxThe story is sweet and the characters sophisticated, even if their appearances are not. During a 57 week shoot Elliot supervised a team of animators who each worked to create five seconds of completed footage per day. No matter how far up the animation totem pole – big budget or small budget, Oscar or no Oscar – it’s a given that the work will be a slow grind: exhausting, painstaking and repetitious. There are good reasons why animated movies spend so long in script development. If a scene doesn’t work the way it’s intended, the director can’t exactly gather the cast for a quick reshoot. The dailies, well, they’re not really dailies – more ‘weeklies’ or ‘monthlies’.

Animated movies from major western production houses always carry with them a sense of largesse and intricacy – a feeling that every joke and pop culture reference has been tirelessly worked, tweaked and tested; that every pixel on the screen has been intensely designed, illustrated and finessed. Adam Elliot’s work is different. His scripts have more heart than head and they progress at a breezy off-kilter rhythm. The stories are slight and difficult to categorise. His distinctive visual style, while gorgeous in its own deranged way, is wonky, unusual and indelicate, even crude. Watching these funny little plasticine impersonations of human beings, it is impossible to forget we’re seeing something contrived. It is however equally impossible to imagine Mary and Max, a transcendental work of genius, being made any other way.

The film segues coolly from whimsy to tragedy, capriciousness to profundity, with a emotional awareness that is both savage and tender. One moment we’re watching blogs of plasticine make poo jokes, and the next we’re confronted by heartrending explorations of heavy things – mental illness, alcoholism, loneliness, sociology. As we laugh our hearts register that something heavier is on its way and restock their defences, only to be obliterated by comedy again and the process repeats itself. In this respect Mary and Max reminded me of Roberto Benigni’s funny, morbid and ultimately uplifting Life is Beautiful, which also walks a tightrope between comedy and drama. Beautiful, yes. Dark, twisted, uncompromising and sad – yes, life is all these things too.

Mary and Max is littered with wonderful touches but keep your eye out for the Que Sara Sara scene, which is marvellously provocative: a whirlwind of emotions rendered through gloriously imperfect aesthetic. It is a standout moment in a standout movie.

Mary and Max’s Australian theatrical release date: 9 April 2009

Tomorrow on Cinetology: an interview with writer/director/designer Adam Elliot

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