Friday, November 13, 2009

Mary & Max

This post could have quickly turned into a rant describing my immense frustrations with films like Space Chimps making their way through American cinemas, whoring themselves to any family who don't know any better, while films like Mary & Max are nowhere to be found. But the truth is, I haven't hated the majority of animated features released in the past few years.

Sequels aside, Hollywood has continued to develop projects with depth and substance and that aren't being discounted just because they're cartoons. Independent filmmakers have created a smaller but impressive group of movies aimed towards older audiences. Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir, and Fear[s] of the Dark have all received festival attention and praise from critics.

Pixar and Dreamworks' domination in the mainstream market could have resulted in laziness and lackluster product (feel free to make that argument against Dreamworks, if you'd like) but the overall quality of releases have been high. The rising availability of more mature features seems to be saying that America's future with animation may not be as bleak as one might fear, especially if Disney's princesses and talking animals aren't doing it for them. But what does that mean for Mary & Max, a film that after one viewing took a firm place in my mental list of Top 3 Films of the year?

The story revolves around a young Austrailian girl named Mary who has a birthmark on her forehead and a non-existence support system. One day, she writes a letter to a man she's never met and whose address she's ripped out of a phone book at random. Her letter arrives at an apartment in New York, where it's carefully read by an overweight, friendless, man who's suffering from Asperger's syndrome. And while her letters often induce sever panic attacks for poor Max, the unlikely couple become close, close friends and continue to write each other through the next two decades.

Mary & Max is an awe-inspiring stop-motion claymation film by Adam Elliot, the man behind Harvie Krumpet, the Oscar-winning short. Elliot labored over Mary & Max for years and the results seem to have worth the effort. It premiered at Sundance--opening night, no less. It holds a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and features some of the most breathtaking animation that's ever been recorded.

From converying complex emotions to capturing the look of falling rain, Elliot's claymation the most impressive that I've ever seen. Don't get me wrong, I love Wallace and Gromit as much as the next guy, and I'm sure I still have my "Clay Fighter" cartridge around here somewhere, but when it comes to this medium, I've never seen anything as overwhelmingly incredible as Mary & Max. And I don't think I'm alone here. And it's not just the visuals that will win viewers over, the story is inventive and touching. With Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette providing the voice work, Mary & Max is the complete package, everything you would hope for from an animated film.

So why isn't it playing in theaters? Why hasn't anyone besides festival attenders ever heard of this movie? Perhaps things are being held up on the business end of things; or maybe this is just how long distribution takes and even though my impatience may feel like it's helping, it's most likely not. It could be a number of reasons but I have a hunch. My guess for why Mary & Max hasn't seen the light of day in the U.S. is because it simply falls in the middle...and if there's one thing that Hollywood doesn't know how to promote, it's the middle.

The animation is humorously exaggerated and cartoonish (unlike Triplet of Belleville which was disturbingly exaggrated), which makes it seem like its target audience is children but the themes and content are definitely aimed at older movie-goers. Alcoholism, loneliness, despair, and suicide, are all themes incorporated in the film but it still recieved a PG-rating when it was released in Austrailia. But you shouldn't be confused, this isn't Meet the Feebles or Fritz the Cat. It's not dark enough to be classified as an Adults-Only movie but it's too dark to be considered Family Friendly. So as the next Sundance Festival approaches, the fate of this year's opening film will most likely still remain in the balance. And it will stay there until someone thinks far enough outside the box to figure out how to properly market an animated movie that talks about prostitues in a way that doesn't really push too many boundaries or buttons.


Daniel Getahun said...

Wow, you are totally right - this was a huge deal in the months prior to Sundance, and it's been crickets since. I'd love to see it.

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brian said...

do you know what bothers me about space chimps? that it was a cartoon. can you imagine a sci-fi movie with an all chimp cast? it would be like robinson c on mars except with out all the annoying humans.

elgringo said...

Brian, I couldn't agree more. Literally. I could not agree any more than I agree right now.

whitney said...

It's interesting that all those animated movies from the independent market you pointed out as having depth are foreign-made. I wonder if there is the idea that making a feature here outside of the hollywood system is just never going to be worth the effort.