In recent years, the output of clay animation films has been somewhat disappointing given the enormous increase in CGI animation films from Hollywood. The huge success of Disney Pixar titles such as WALL-E (2008), Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010) appear to have put an unfortunate end to the clay animation style, which enjoyed so much success in the past.
Not, that I am criticising the above mentioned films; on the contrary, I am a huge fan of each, all three being shining examples of just how charming and moving, high budget Hollywood CGI movies can be when placed in the right hands. However, it is still saddening to see such an imbalance of animation styles on our screens these days.
Adam Elliot’s latest clay animation (or ‘claymation’) Mary and Max (2009) thankfully goes someway to redressing this balance. A film of astonishing beauty, Mary and Max was undoubtedly one of the films of 2010. Taking place over the course of twenty years and spanning two continents, the film follows the relationship of pen pals Mary, an eight year old child from Australia, and Max, a forty four year old Jewish man living in New York, who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. It is through this relationship that Elliot explores the film’s central themes of loneliness, mental illness, love and friendship with a deft balance of humour, sadness and subtlety.
Firstly, the clay animation is absolutely impeccable. With such a child-like aesthetic, one could easily overlook just how painstaking a process the animation in Mary and Max must have been. This is certainly to the animators and director’s credit, as the style is never too showy, nor does it ever distract from the unfolding story. Instead, it draws its audience in delicately, allowing its tones and shades to assist in setting the mood.
The balance between the child-like tone and the film’s adult central themes is superbly offset by Barry Humphries’ narration, lending itself perfectly to the style of the animation whilst also allowing the story to be told in way that would be equally fitting to a child’s fairy tale. The same can also be said for the vocal talent provided by Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Mary and Max respectively, with each adding greater depth to their characterisation.
The combination of each of these elements makes for a truly exceptional piece of work. Although there are moments of heart wrenching sadness and a lingering sense of melancholy throughout, there are also enough moments of quirky humour and touching tenderness to leave Mary and Max both uplifting and heart warming. The depth and development of each and every character connects with the viewer in a manner which would usually seem impossible through animation, such is the strength of Elliot’s script.
For me, Mary and Max belongs in the same animated canon as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Steve Box/Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) as a genuine classic of the ‘claymation’ genre. As a stable of films which is growing ever more redundant at the hand of Hollywood studios’ penchant for big budget 3D and CGI animations, gems such as Mary and Max will inevitably become an even rarer commodity in contemporary cinema, which is why everyone needs to see this film. It really is that good.