Mary Dinkle is an introverted single child, not particularly bright or pretty, and growing up in some forgotten trashy suburb in Australia. Her father works in a tea-bag factory and her mother sees sherry as an essential ingredient in all her cooking, and likes “borrowing” things from shops. Her grandfather told her that babies are found at the bottom of a pint. This grey, depressing world is all very confusing for Mary, but she has her cartoons to keep herself busy.
Meanwhile, in New York… Max Horowitz, an autistic overweight man, also lonely, watches the same cartoon. His fish just died, throwing his whole life in asymmetrical disarray. Mary, not knowing who Max is, nevertheless looks up his address because she wants to write someone in America a letter. She tells about her life and asks whether babies in America are found in Coca Cola cans. The two start a correspondence.
It’s very touching. Both Mary and Max have trouble understanding the world. Mary (Bethany Whitmore) because she is still a child, and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) because he has a very literal autistic mind and cannot read body language. Even though they are so different and live in such different environments, they are quite alike. Through the movie, we see the world through their eyes and we understand how the world can indeed be confusing.
Who would put such characters in an animated movie? The technique is similar to the Aardman Claymation studios, and it has the emotional depth of some Pixar films in their quieter moments. Mary and Max is purely made to make you feel through personal storytelling, and not to make you excited through action sequences. It is touching because it feels so real, so grown up. This is not animation as an escape from reality, but as a recognition of reality.
The animation has this wonderful quirky funny style with great music. For example, we hear Max narrating his letter to Mary, saying that his psychiatrist Dr. Hazelhof told him that having a healthy body equals a healthy mind, and we see a scene of Dr. Hazelhof standing on his hands and Max going “oohhhh”. Or, Max says that although his mouth doesn’t smile often, he is smiling inside, and we see a picture of his brain with a big toothy smile.
There is this sense of quiet loneliness and despair that lays over the entire movie, but it isn’t a depressing movie. It is funny instead. The people for example all have these bulging eyes that stare into nothing, and the animals too, Mary’s pet rooster and Max’s cat Hal (short for halitosis). And you get the despairing feeling that it communicates, but it is funny at the same time. It is the same with the sepia/greyscale coloring of the movie. This has a few functions: it sets the movie in the past of the 80s when writing letters still existed, it makes the movie a bit dark and depressing, but it is also an artistic opportunity for nice contrasts and shadows, so that the big white bulging eyes pop out more.
The script takes some drastic turns in the later half. Decades go by, Mary grows up, people die. Not everyone will appreciate where the film goes. It gets darker than you would expect, and it feels a bit forced and sadistic by the writers, and a bit manipulative to make us feel bad. The characters start wallowing in their sadness and make bad decisions, and even though it is beautifully portrayed, it is frustrating. The feeling of realism of the first half falls away and you start seeing the writers behind the movie, and that’s a shame.
The movie is mostly narrative. There’s both Mary and Max narrating their letters and there is the movie narrator, telling what’s happening. But the monologues are just magnificent, and they suck you into the lives of these people, with all their quirky little unique stories. The film evokes Amelie (2001) because it has the same little observations and odd characters, and is about love and connection. I think if you like Amelie, you will like this one as well.