Dueling Film Reviews - Round One: JDub on "Mary and Max"

Posted 11/12/2010 by JDub in Labels: , , , , ,
Writer/director Adam Elliot's 2009 film "Mary and Max" is proof that animation (claymation, in this case) is not always for children. Here, we have a film that deals with some very dark and adult issues, but looks at these issues through Mary, a very lonely young Australian girl, and her pen pal Max, an obese Jewish New Yorker suffering from Asperger's Syndrome. As Mary asks Max some of the most poignant questions in life, we see her adorable ignorance held up against Max's highly analytical and literal outlook on life.

Mary and Max are quite a pair, and through their 20 year-long correspondence, they face the world together--from the despair of isolation and loss to the joy of having everything they'd always wanted. There is much to say about the plot of "Mary and Max," and a number of reviewers I've run across have gone that route, but what really interests me about this film is the choice of claymation as a medium and what Elliot has done with it.

Firstly, I should mention that I have a soft spot for claymation, especially the classic strange, dry British wit found in Wallace and Gromit, for example. Regardless, "Mary and Max" is a breathtaking example of what can be done visually with clay. Though the film has a largely monochromatic color palette, save a bright orange-red that pops up here and there, the level of detail and pragmatism in dealing with "real-world" settings is fantastic. For example:

If you really give this image a close look at full resolution, you will begin to get a sense for the sheer quantity of detail in every scene of the film, both in the foreground and the background. As one Web reviewer has already noted, nothing Pixar or Dreamworks could create can touch this painstaking attention to detail, as "the computers couldn't render it, or only ass slow." What's more, these details ooze with character and fascinating imperfection, adding quirk and charm to the film.

But I think the choice of clay as a medium has deeper implications than the level and quality of detail for which it allows. Traditional animation (and computer animation, for that matter) is characterized by allowing the animator to create an imaginary world in which to set their story. This allows for the animation of anything that can be imagined, because even the most implausible characters, settings, and situations can be represented visually on screen. Contrast this with traditional live action filming, sans CGI or special effects, which requires real people in real places to create the illusion of the fictional characters and their fictional situations.

With clay, however, you are indeed creating your own fantasy world, but by introducing the use of the real camera to photograph your real clay models, a certain degree of tangibility or "realness" is injected into the product. The clay artist is free to create whatever they can imagine, as with animation, but in the end, a real model must be photographed by a real camera, as with live action filming.

Therefore, I'd say that "Mary and Max" does not take place in THE real world so much as it takes place in A real world--one in which the Statue of Liberty is a fat man and houseflies have strangely large, blinking eyes rather than creepy tiny segmented eyes.

Still, one does not need to know that this film is based on a true story to feel resonate it as such. Further, this is a film whose plot is based on a true story and whose setting is based on the real world, and that sort of symmetry is difficult to attain outside of the claymation medium.

"Mary and Max" may be a dark and even disturbing film at times, but the way in which it is executed is hilarious and absolutely charming, adding just the right amount of lightness for an enjoyable viewing experience. In my mind, a live action version of this film would be mostly without this humor and charm and therefore a much bigger pill to swallow, but a traditionally animated version of the film would lose that tangibility and resonance introduced by real clay and real cameras.

So, track this film down, give it a watch, post your comments and opinions, and as always, stay tuned for next week's follow up articles.

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