Mary and Max

(12A) 92min

So who’s up for an Australian claymation feature dealing with loneliness, bullying, obesity, suicide and mental illness? No? Well, that’s a crying shame, as writer/director Adam Elliot, who won an Oscar for short Harvie Crumpet in 2003, has fashioned unlikely material into a minor miracle of wit, humanity and compassion.

Reworking the ‘pen-friends-who-never-meet’ structure of 84 Charing Cross Road, Elliot’s film opens with an eight-year-old Melbourne girl, Mary (initially voiced by Bethany Whitmore, then Toni Collette), who begins a stop-star epistolary friendship with Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a middle-aged, morbidly obese New Yorker suffering from Asperger’s syndrome. Despite the disapproval of Mary’s feckless parents, and with little in common other than a love for their favourite cartoon show The Noblets, the misfits begin a 20-year friendship which transcends their own isolated personal circumstances, although the two never come into direct contact until the predictable, but profoundly moving final scene.

Shot in monochrome with only occasional flashes of colour, Mary and Max’s depiction of two humble loners struggling with their considerable personal hang-ups might sound like hard going, but it’s anything but a downer. Sporting a well-chosen soundtrack featuring the Penguin Café Orchestra and some familiar classical music plus warm narration from Dame Edna herself, Barry Humphries, Elliot artfully steers clear of pathos, instead filling the screen with dark humour and a highly detailed animated style that’s a joy to watch.

Coming on like a Mike Leigh film animated by Tim Burton, Mary and Max’s fearless tackling of adult issues might seem inappropriate for children, but only the most prudish could take offence. Filling his frame with elaborate visual jokes, including some delightfully camera-hogging birds, Elliot has created a parable that nails the bruising, nurturing, forgiving nature of a true friendship. The moral, that we can’t chose our relatives, but we can chose our friends, might be obvious from the start, but even the most hard-hearted cynic will find themselves fumbling for their handkerchiefs as Mary and Max moves towards an inevitable, saddening, yet somehow uplifting conclusion.

Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Fri 5–Tue 9 Nov; GFT, Glasgow, Sun 5–Tue 7 Dec.

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