Monday, November 30, 2009

Boston Jewish Film Festival: Mary and Max

The Boston Jewish Film Festival is a sprawling thing, one that takes place in over a half dozen venues and, I suspect, as many municipalities. There are some of them that public transit folks like me just can't reach - good luck getting to Danvers or West Newton, for instance. Well, I can get to West Newton. Getting home from there is an entirely different matter.

Mary and Max wasn't quite my first choice Thursday night. I figured that The Girl on the Train would be less likely to show up for a regular run and it would be nifty to see Emilie Duquennes in something new, as not much of what she has done since Brotherhood of the Wolf has made it to the Boston area. Too early, though, for me to get back to Cambridge from Waltham.

Mary and Max

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 November 2009 at Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Boston Jewish Film Festival)

It's interesting how certain things seem to arrive in clusters. Stop-motion animation never seemed to disappear quite so completely as the traditional cel-based form, but what has appeared over the last year or so has been an unexpected bounty. Not just in amount, but that Australia has turned out two of these films ($9.99 and Adam Elliot's Mary and Max) that are both well-produced and perhaps more suited to the boutique house than the multiplex.

Mary Daisy Dinkle (voice of Bethany Whitmore) is an eight-year-old girl living outside of Melbourne, ostracized for the birthmark on her forehead and dealing with weird parents. Curious about where babies come from in America (in Australia, they're found at the bottom of beer glasses), she writes to an address she pulls out of the New York phone book randomly. The recipient happens to be Max Jerry Horovitz (voice of Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is obese, in his mid-forties, and has a hard time relating to the outside world. He writes back, though, starting a correspondence that will continue for years.

By then, Mary will be voiced by Toni Collette, a transition that is handled so smoothly the audience may never realize that different actress's voice the character at different ages. It's a very nice cast - Whitmore and Collette are perfect fits for Mary as she goes through her ups and downs, while Hoffman takes on a tone that is gruff and maybe a little combative. He does a nice job in making it clear how Max, by nature of his mental condition, has to really concentrate on how to interact with others. Eric Bana is good as Mary's next-door neighbor, Damien, and Barry Humphries does a fine job as the film's narrator, adding a great deal of dry wit to what could feel like dull or needless exposition.

Which is good, because the film uses him a lot. At times, this is a little frustrating; it flies in the face of the "show, don't tell" dictum. What it winds up doing, though, is emphasizing that these two pen pals only know each other through their letters, and lets us experience that friendship the same way, even though we are also seeing them do things they don't write about and are fed information that wouldn't be in the letters. It's not necessarily an easy device to accept, but it works much better than it does in other narration-heavy films. That it allows Elliot to avoid awkward lip-sync issues is a bonus.

A large bonus, though, as it would be a shame if the impressive animation were sabotaged by that (which seems especially tricky in stop-motion). The character animation is remarkably smooth; there's no stuttering, and the characters neither look like hard plastic nor pick up fingerprints or other deformations that often remind the viewer that someone is manipulating models. Some of the models are just excellent: I love the design for Mary, for instance, which is simple and very expressive, and moves from child to adult fantastically well. The same is true for Damien, and I wonder if they wound up being the two best-designed characters because the need to age them recognizably meant keeping them simple. Some of the other characters are a little busy - Max looks like a lighter-skinned Shrek, for instance. I love the model of New York, though.

The story is good, as well. It's a very true depiction of isolated people making tentative connections, none of them perfect. Characters get angry and hurt each other badly, and people die even though they might be all someone else has. It's a tightrope between hilarious and depressing, with some moments able to fit under either category. Thanks to the efforts of Elliot, the animators, and the voice actors, Mary and Max are almost always sympathetic characters, even when we want them to act differently, and well worth following.

According to a subtitle, Mary and Max was inspired by actual events, and despite the often crazy embellishments, I believe that. It's a genuine, touching story of friendship, even when that friendship is hard.

Also at HBS.

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