I'm tempted to call Mary and Max the Precious of animated films, even though in story Adam Elliot's stop-motion feature is hardly similar to Lee Daniels's urban drama. The connection I can make, though, is that they both are about certain kinds of people -- everyday people, the ones in the background -- folks the movies are almost never about. They're the ones who are forced to live lives within the confined spaces of the environments they're placed in, stuck with bad parents, victims of TV and junk food, and subject to all variations of reinforced neuroses, fears, insecurities, and simple dreams.
Both movies are also extremely depressing. Mary and Max, however, is also quite humorous -- it works in a good amount of both dark and observational comedy, and it would be funnier if the world it creates (or reflects, really) wasn't so sad. It's the story (narrated by Barry Humphries) of two very unlikely pen-pals: Mary (voiced as a child by Bethany Whitmore, as an adult by Toni Collette), a young lonely girl in the Melbourne suburbs of Australia, and Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman), an overweight, nervous middle-aged man in New York. They are both downtrodden individuals, though neither may be conscientiously aware of this state as they both go through life trying to avoid complications, doing their best to feel their way through dilemmas, and trying to enjoy the little things they enjoy out of life. The friendship they form, though, provides a light neither of them had before, a light at once beneficial and challenging to maintain and understand.
While Mary and Max gets a lot of things right, I think it gets the dynamics of friendship more right than everything else. Not a straighforward story about how one friendship illuminates two lives in some shiny "BFF" way, it presents their relationship as complicated -- it strains to breaking points at least twice, and the movie shows how more fragile and interdependent a friendship becomes as the friends gain more closeness and trust.
Despite its ample lighter moments, Mary and Max is not easy to sit through -- even its visuals are oppressive, with its rather grotesquely portrayed characters and strict color scheme (Australia is all brown tones, New York is in a soul-sucking black-and-white, red occasionally dots both colorscapes, but almost never green or blue). But it is a humane work, one that recognizes that what we call "the human condition" is everpresent, though most people wouldn't be able to tell you what it is -- they're too busy trying to make the most of their own sad lives.
(Released by Sundance Selects; not rated by MPAA.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.