Adam Elliot's Mary and Max (2009) is, along with Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey's Secret of Kells (same year) arguably the best English-language animated feature I've seen in years--in several years. And yes, I've seen that latest Pixar movie, the third one about the talking toys.
A huge part of the film's appeal is that it's so relentlessly retro. The film is stop-motion animation and unlike other animators who resort to CGI to render their effects, Elliot sticks to stop-motion all the way--flames leap and dance by crinkling red cellophane; a rainstorm pours down by agitating fishing wire; a toilet flushes by photographing KY Jelly spiraling down its drain. Cityscapes are not 3-D digital constructs; they are elaborate models, extending from one side of the screen to another. Every object has been especially built, down to the fully functional Underwood typewriter that took nine weeks to design and build (A typewriter! Remember those fossilized creatures?). Sensibilities are remarkably retro too--the two (Mary from Melbourne and Max from New York) live at a time before email was even possible, and correspond through the traditional written letter; they wait for days (at one point, even months) for the other's reply, creating a suspense we don't really experience anymore, not in this age of chat forums and instant messaging and Twitter. Plus, there is this idea--old-fashioned, possibly dangerous, entirely unwholesome and definitely inappropriate for children (thank goodness): that watching animation can be an adult activity, focusing on adult manners, even when children are involved in the story.
Maybe the film's most remarkable quality is this: though Elliot is Australian, grew up in Australia, and remains based there, it's the New York sequences that are the most vividly realized. Elliot cuts to a long shot of the city and you want to drink in all the densely textured skyscrapers, especially the Chrysler building with its outstretched eagle heads (every time the film cuts to New York I keep looking for those marvelous eagle heads). Everything, every detail seems of the city, and not just of the city, of a specific period in the city's life, from the cat with the missing eye to the air-conditioner that falls out of its moorings to the half-blind neighbor with the gigantic spectacles, to all the prepackaged versions of traditional kosher food (I couldn't find the exact labels, but I could find similar examples in the frozen section of my local supermarket).
And Max--you could imagine Philip Roth or Bernard Malamud creating him (as a matter of fact he's based on someone Elliot corresponded with for twenty years). As voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, he's a remarkably truthful character, as accurate a portrait of Asperger's Syndrome as you can find on the big screen, down to the anal-retentive obsessiveness with details and the little booklet of facial expressions (to help Max identify what emotion a specific facial expression is supposed to express). More, he's unrepentantly true to himself--when at one point he has a stroke of good fortune and finally has the means to fulfill all of his and Mary's fantasies, he doesn't follow the feel-good formula and give us what we expect of him--he just goes along his stubborn path, in his ingrown, introverted way.
And it isn't as if Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore as a child, Toni Collette as an adult) were your run-of-the-mill protagonist--she's cute at first, but somewhere along the line she betrays the onset of a burgeoning sexuality, to which Max reacts by having an anxiety attack (he stands in a corner stool and sways back and forth, his pants cords swinging like a light bulb on a wire). Mary has needs, and they're messy needs, more than Max can handle; to Mary's credit, when it's Max turn to make demands Mary performs the needed sacrifice, no matter what the cost, and in this film when something costs the price is more than just an arm or a leg--it's deep depression, possible alcoholism, even the destruction of a marriage.
Isn't exactly your average Pixar movie, or Pixar's idea of a poignant movie. The first ten minutes of, say, Up (2009) is oft cited when listing the multi-billion-dollar-grossing studio's achievements, but that is a saccharine attempt at poignancy, one that pulls back the moment the viewers feel the slightest twinge of pain. Elliot does not pull back, not in the bite of his sarcasm, not in the emotional force of his images. He follows each character to their respective bittersweet fates with an unrelenting focus that can be exhausting, if it wasn't so mordantly funny--fact of the matter is, there's something autistic about his unflinching manner of storytelling (a reviewer called the film "heartwarming," which in my book would be accurate only if you think of a piece of cardiac muscle being grilled over coals). If I find this film more visually distinctive, more texturally fascinating (every object handcrafted, visibly shaped by human fingers), more laugh-out-loud funny, more emotionally complex, more--and this above all else--honest than anything Pixar has ever done, I beg your pardon; that's how I feel about the matter. Highly, highly recommended.
first published in Businessworld 11.25.10