As subject matters go, suicide, prostitution, condoms and
alcoholism are not the usual fodder for feature animation. But there
again, Adam Elliot’s May and Max is not exactly aimed at kids.
Animated features have long since risen from being the sole domain of all things cute, from Ari Folman’s excellent Waltz With Bashir, to the less well received Fritz The Cat (Ralph Bakshi). Not that Mary and Max needed to be an animation to provide entertainment. Here, we have a solid narrative with serious character development of its damaged clay stars. Think of a deliciously dark version of Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit. No computer tricks, here. It took five years, with six animation teams creating a mere four seconds a day.
Elliot has only previously worked on shorts, including the Oscar winning Harvie Krumpet.
His first full length feature is based on the director’s own life, who
had a pen-pal relationship with a New York man who has Asperger’s
syndrome for as long as 20 years.
In the film, Max Jerry Horovitz is an obese, ugly and friendless 44-year-old Jewish man (voiced by an unrecognizable Philip Seymour Hoffman)
who is afflicted with the aforementioned disorder and lives a tiny,
shabby apartment in a scummy building in New York where everything is
black and white. Even his goldfish do not stick around for long in this
pitiful life, with Henry the Eighth (the first seven swimming in fish
heaven) now in resident until his fated demise. Although, the
neighbour’s decrepit one-eyed cat seems to stick around. Max’s highlight of the day is to gorge on chocolate hot dogs – literally, chocolate bars in a bun!
When Max receives a surprise letter from eight-year-old Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced as a child by Bethany Whitmore, later by Toni Collette)
with the random question ‘where babies come from’ (she heard that they
come from beer glasses), one nervous anxiety attack later, Max responds
and an unusual friends kicks in; the two bonded by their loneliness.
Living on the other side of the world, in Australia, Mary, herself,
is so unpopular, her classmates are prone to urinating in her lunchbox.
Talking of bodily functions, the narrator (Barry Humphries)
informs us that the birthmark on her forehead is “the colour of poo”.
Her myopic eyes are the colour of muddy puddles. With her dad working a
machine that stitches string into tea bags, and stuffs birds in his shed
at night, Mary’s mum spends her time, smoking, baking and ‘testing’
sherry. In fact, since Mary’s grandpa kicked the bucket a year
previously, after drinking ammonia, no-one has been nice to her since.
Thus, one day, on a whim, she picks a name out of an American address
book in the local post office and writes to a man – yes, Max, in New
Funny, unique and moving – the animated characters feel
disarmingly real, with facial expressions that breathes life into them –
be prepared for some shockingly dark moments. A must-see.