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Labour Pains and the Birth of Mary and Max

The opening night selection of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, Mary and Max is a clayograph (a claymation biography hybrid) feature film from Academy Award winning writer/director Adam Elliot featuring the voice talents of Toni Collette, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries and Eric Bana.

Writer/director Adam Elliot and producer Melanie Coombs talk with the press at the Sundance Film Festival.

written by Cam Christiansen

The opening night selection of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, Mary and Max is a clayograph (a claymation biography hybrid) feature film from Academy Award winning writer/director Adam Elliot and producer Melanie Coombs, featuring the voice talents of Toni Collette, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries and Eric Bana.

Opening night at Sundance is very charged and frenetic after navigating the flights, shuttles and complex waters of trying to get into the much coveted opening night film at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. We were so frantic to get tickets that it was a relief to actually sit down in the Eccles theatre. After high five-ing ourselves for making it with one minute to spare we focused our attention on the nights screening of Mary and Max. It seems everyone was relieved to be there including the director who reflected on the surreal nature of being there having “just” finished the film.

There was no indication of a rushed product as this was a very polished and innovative choice to open the Sundance film festival. In fact it is the first animated feature ever to play at Sundance. As the director of the festival Geoffrey Gilmore mentioned, it was chosen not because it’s a novelty (feature animation) but because it is “simply a great film”.

When musing about the process of making such an ambitious claymation literally involving hundreds of people and taking five years, the director Adam Elliot said, “It is like making love and being stabbed to death at the same time." Suddenly our inconveniences seemed trivial and we were treated to the pleasure and benefit of Adam Elliot's pain.

The storyline spans 20 years and two continents, Mary and Max tells of a pen-pal relationship between two very different people: Mary Dinkle (Collette), a chubby, lonely eight-year-old living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia; and Max Horovitz (Hoffman), a middle-aged Jewish man suffering from Asperger's syndrome.

As Mary and Max chronicles Mary’s trip from adolescence to adulthood, and Max’s passage from middle to old age, it explores a bond that survives much more than the average friendship’s ups-and-downs. Like Elliot and Coombs’ Oscar-winning animated short Harvie Krumpet, Mary and Max is both hilarious and poignant as it takes us on a journey that explores friendship, autism, taxidermy, psychiatry, alcoholism, where babies come from, obesity, kleptomania, sexual differences, trust, copulating dogs, religious differences, agoraphobia and many more of life’s surprises.

The story is complex and atypical for an animation feature for those used to Finding Nemo, or Wallace and Gromit. I think it is a welcome addition to ground-breaking animated features in recent years like Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir that are geared to an adult audience.

I confess when I read about the film coming to Sundance I imagined it to be trendy - ironic and perhaps leaning towards a South Park sense of humour and was pleasantly surprised by the straightforwardness and honesty of the sometimes dark and uneasy subject matter. The choice of subject matter was brave and shows a real maturity and belief in the power of his characters and story. Quotes from other audience members repeatedly mentioned the film being full of emotion, understanding and depth.

I would certainly look for this film to be heading towards the Oscars and lets hope it gets picked up so that everyone can enjoy the fruits of Adam Elliot's labour pains.

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