In 2004, Australian animator Adam Elliot won the Academy
Award for Best Animated Short Film for his 2003 clay-animation film Harvie
Krumpet. Enriched by the critical success of the short, Elliot set about on
his next project, his first full-length feature. Released in 2009, Mary and
Max only made $2.5 million against an $8 million budget, but it is honestly
one of the best Australian films ever made.
Mary and Max tells the story of two characters
connecting their strange, sad lives over a great distance and massive age gap.
Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced by Bethany Whitmore (young) and Toni Collette
(adult)) is an 8-year-old Australian girl living in Mount Waverley, Victoria.
She’s a shy, quiet, quirky and misunderstood child, picked on at school and
lives with her distant, unavailable father and alcoholic, kleptomaniac mother.
She randomly selects the name “Max Jerry Horowitz” in an international phone
book one day, and decides to write to him out of the blue for a chance he’ll be
her pen friend. Max Jerry Horowitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a morbidly-obese
44-year-old Jewish man living in New York City who suffers from crippling
anxiety and Asperger syndrome. The two write to each other over a several years
as Mary grows up into a young woman, but Max just descends further into anxiety
If Mary and Max wasn’t animated, it would be a
deliriously depressing experience for real-life characters to be living through
this story. But Adam Elliot knows how sad the truth of life is and builds
around this story the quirkiness and fascinating intricacies of his unique
animation style, lulling you at first into a sense of ease at a darkly comedic
tone. Misspelt words, strange designs of people and animals, Expressionist
backgrounds, and bizarre quotes like like “Mary Dinkle’s eyes were the colour
of muddy puddles…her birthmark the colour of poo” or “I wish he was my
boyfriend, then we can be in love and do sexing”.
At first watch, you would think this is just a dark comedy
about weird people living in weird worlds. And yes it is that, but when you
finish it, Mary and Max becomes so much more. It looks strange and its
sense of humour is way off-kilter, but it all means something so beautiful.
And from here on out I am going to talk about the end of Mary
and Max. It’s a major spoiler if you have never seen the film, so please, I
implore you dear reader, go watch this film and then come back to this point in
In the end, Mary and Max go through massive personal
traumas, experience terrible losses and almost succumb themselves to the grey
and sepia tones of the worlds around them. But they do not. In the end, even after
losing contact with one another, they find themselves back to being good
friends. And Mary finally goes to visit Max after so many years. As she enters
his New York apartment, just as he described it to her all those years ago, she
finds Max unresponsive, lying on his couch, facing up to the ceiling. Max has
died before he could ever meet Mary. But as Mary looks up, he sees all the
letters she ever sent him nailed to the ceiling. He died thinking of her.
Mary and Max, very much like Harvie Krumpet,is a look at mental illness and how those affected see their world and move
through it, as strange as that might be to us. It’s about people who feel
disaffected, lost, scared, stupid, abandoned, or helpless finding connection no
matter where they are or who they are. We will all go through great highs and
crushing lows, but the connection we have between dear friends is the great
truth in the end. Mary and Max is an emotional masterwork, an eternally
sweet, sensitive and strange film, and one of the best that Australian cinema
has to offer.
Director: Adam Elliot
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette, Bethany Whitmore
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