Maudlin sentiment, miserablist humor and scatological sight gags are affectionately but awkwardly molded together in the Australian claymation feature “Mary and Max.” A glum tale of friendship between two very unlikely pen pals, writer-director-designer Adam Elliot’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning 2003 short “Harvie Krumpet” has its share of deadpan amusements, but its combo of mordant whimsy and tearjerker moments winds up curdling in an unappetizing fashion. A strong voice cast headed by Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman could buoy the toon’s otherwise uncertain prospects beyond Oz.
While his clay creations are as endearingly lumpy and his settings as lovingly detailed as any in “Wallace & Gromit,” Elliot has supplied his titular protags with enough tics, neuroses, addictions and emotional wounds to refute the suggestion that “Mary and Max” is in any way intended for children. In truth, it’s hard to discern exactly whom the pic is intended for; it’s possible to admire the singular eccentricity of Elliot’s bleak comic vision from a distance, even when it overstays its welcome and becomes less amusing than flat-out grotesque.
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It’s 1976 when we meet Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced by Bethany Whitmore), a plump, unloved 8-year-old girl with thick glasses and a birthmark on her forehead that, in the words of Elliot’s script, is “the color of poo.” (This is merely the first poo reference in a movie that not only visualizes clay facsimiles of bird turds and dogs’ droppings but also deploys them as significant plot devices.)
Mary lives in the Melbourne suburb of Mount Waverley, where she’s neglected by her dull factory-worker dad and her chain-smoking, sherry-nipping mum. Longing for a friend besides her pet rooster, Mary tears a page at random from an American phone book and ends up scrawling a letter to Max Jerry Horowitz (voiced by Hoffman, superbly schlubby and hard to recognize), an elderly, overweight Jewish man who lives alone in his Manhattan apartment.
Pic is at its most charming in the early stages of Max and Mary’s epistolary relationship, as they bond via their love of sweets (which they send to one another by post) and their shared status as outcasts. Max types out his sad life story for Mary’s benefit — a series of alternately amusing and cringe-inducing episodes involving missed emotional connections and failed jobs, all of which are eventually explained by his revelation that he has Asperger syndrome.
Max’s developmental disorder brings about unexpected turns for him and his pen pal — some fortunate, some tragic, as the story stretches into the late ‘80s and Mary outgrows her earlier hang-ups and becomes a confident young woman (Collette). But the tale’s simple, heartfelt message about love, friendship and forgiveness is undermined by an increasingly repetitive structure (visual jokes and deadpan non sequiturs laboriously spelled out by Barry Humphries’ mock-storybook narration) and a persistent mean-spiritedness of tone.
Minor characters are bumped off — and, in the case of Max’s pet fish, nastily mutilated — to questionable comic effect, and that bizarre fecal fixation keeps rearing its ugly head. Auds may discern an Alexander Payne influence — most clearly in the character of Max, whose downturned slab of a mouth is poignantly expressive — but pic is finally less funny and more baldly sentimental than Payne’s morose comedies.
As with most stop-motion toons, it’s hard to watch “Mary and Max” without an awareness of how painstakingly it was created; Elliot, who also served as production and character designer, eschewed CG enhancements in favor of frame-by-frame plasticine adjustments and hand-crafted miniatures. Pic’s duo-tone palette (muddy brown for Australia, film-noir gray for America) emphasizes the dour humor of the material, as do Gerald Thompson’s fluid, unfussy camerawork and Bill Murphy’s sharp editing, which turns each sight gag into an isolated tableaux. “Mary and Max” is clearly a labor of love, but one destined perhaps to be loved by a very select few.