Before having even made a feature length film, Adam Elliot had already proven himself as one of Australia’s truly great auteurs. Mary and Max is certainly a great achievement but despite mostly staying true to the spirit of his previous short films, Elliot’s first feature suffers only so very slightly from a mild case of Hollywood-itis.
Previously, Elliot has made four feature films: Uncle (1996), Cousin (1998), Brother (1999) and Harvie Krumpet (2003) which won Elliot an Oscar. His films generally depict characters marginalised by disability, mental illness, loneliness, ethnicity and appearance – the type of characters whose mundane lives are generally left on the cutting room floor of mainstream cinema. Comparisons with other animators (say, Steve Box and Nick Park, creators of Wallace and Gromit) seem lazy or inadequate. The contemporary filmmaker with which Adam Elliot should really be compared with is Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt). Both filmmakers are able to confront audiences with their vision of the world that pays heed to the lives of the banal outcast through various devices: comedy for Payne, and the childlike naivety of claymation for Elliot. What makes both filmmakers so special is their general refusal to impose some kind of narrative arc on their characters’ stories. People live and die. They don’t dramatically battle adversity to win in the end. Their time on the earth is plagued by sadness, failure and disappointment but they retain some dignity by virtue of just being.
Mary and Max tells the story of a lonely, nerdy girl with a prominent birth-mark on her face. Her father is mostly absent from her life leaving her mostly in the care of her alcoholic mother. Living an isolated childhood in Mount Waverley, Mary decides to start a penpal friendship with a random person from the phonebook. This happens to be Max, an obese Jewish atheist living a lonely existence in New York with Asberger’s. And thus, the movie is set in motion as both characters narrate to one another their peculiar, often funny, but mostly sad, lives. Some have found issue with the excessive use of voice-over and the lack of narrative, but those things are kind of the point in Elliot’s cinema: Mary and Max is as beautiful and moving as an epitaph on a gravestone. The most significant thing about these people might be their friendship with one another, but that is enough.
My concern going into the movie was that Elliot’s aesthetic might be too much as a feature length film. After seeing it, I’m certain that Adam Elliot’s ‘thing’ works as a feature. However, some things have changed in the transition to the feature film: Mary and Max too often becomes overly-sentimental. This is evident in some of the life-affirming musical cues (that can be heard in the trailer) and definitely in a melodramatic scene involving a suicide attempt. Compare this with the matter-of-fact way that suicide is presented in Harvie Krumpet and the unwelcome change becomes clearer. Towards the end, the film really begins to stink a little of Hollywood-itis: The moment comes after a quarrel between the two penpals. Max ends up learning a Big Important Life Lesson which is also the ultimate theme of the film. The message is already there in the film but Elliot, perhaps not trusting the audience, decides to jam the message down the audience’s throat. It’s a moment that took me aback – a blatant attempt to give the audience an artificially uplifting ending, as if Max’s life can only have some meaning if he can learn to spout some philosophical sound bites.
Still, it doesn’t derail the film. But it does prevent Mary and Max from being an outright masterpiece. It might be a case of Adam Elliot second-guessing himself under the pressure of making his first feature. I hope that he sticks to his own instincts with his next film which I am certainly anticipating.
SEE THIS WITH:
Harvie Krumpet (Adam Elliot, 2003)
This is Adam Elliot’s real masterpiece and it’s only about 20 minutes long.
14e Arrondissement (Alexander Payne, 2006)
Darkness/Light/Darkness (Jan Svankmajer, 1989)
People who are surprised that claymation can be mature art have obviously not been exposed to the animation of the Czech Republic. Jan Svankmajer is a master of surreal animation and he’s made some truly disturbing features. Here’s one of his many shorts.