Mary and Max: An Underrated Classic

This film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as the second titular character. There. Semi-relevant!

Other fun fact: It also came out the same year as Coraline, at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Mary and Max is the story of two people living on opposite ends of the world in the 1970’s, whose lives are confusing, bleak, and lonely.

Mary D. Dinkle is a little girl living with her family in Australia. Her mother is the local lush with a penchant for verbal abuse and kleptomania; her father seems passive, assembles tea bags and stuffs dead birds he finds on the freeway as a hobby; and Mary herself is constantly teased for her poo-shaped birthmark and her poor, trailer trash background.

Max J. Horowitz is an obese, atheist 44-year-old with Aspergers Syndrome. He converted from Judaism, but still wears his yamaka to keep his “brain warm,” and lives in an apartment in New York City with a plethora of different pets. He finds most people confusing, from their facial expressions to their motives, and strives to keep his life simple and “symmetrical,” which keeps him calm and content. When his fellow New Yorkers don’t find something objectionable, threatening, or noteworthy about him, they ignore him.

These two meet when Mary decides to pick an American penpal at random from the phonebook, and despite the distance and completely separate lives, they quickly bond over The Noblets, their favorite cartoon show; a love of chocolate; and the knowledge they are both social outcasts in desperate want of a friend.

Their differences in ages, shapes, sizes, genders, etc. don’t matter. They speak only via mail, and know only what the other person shares with them. But their friendship is just as close and nourishing as if they lived just up the street from one another.


The thing that really stands out about the film is the use of claymation. Disregarding the very bleak and limited color scheme, you’d probably think this is a kids’ movie. It’s not, but feel free to think what you want. It will take joy in playing with your expectations.

The clay often gives the characters very over-exaggerated, ugly looks,


with the exception of Mary (first pic of the bunch above, on the left), who, at worst, looks plump, nerdy, and shy. This effect leaves the world feeling gritty and pecessmistic; real, in a way, alive but still obviously cartoony. Facial expressions are over-the-top, but tell the audience right away exactly what the character is feeling (even Max sometimes). It’s a very odd combination, but that’s one of the reasons I love the movie so much.

Most of the film is done in mime, with narration and dialogue seeming separate from the characters. This reminds me most of Disney’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which also relied on cartoony expressions and antics to carry the story further. In that case, it was needed to break up some of the more “flowery,” straight-from-the-book narration for kids, and provide a humorous contrast. Here, it compliments the narration and goes beyond its limits to show more depth of character and emotion.

The story is downright unpleasant at times, as many realistic and depressing things happen to Mary, Max, and the important people in their lives. I won’t spoil them here, but if you are interested in this movie at all, be prepared for sensitive and unpleasant topics. And at no point does anyone step out into the land of Oz, changing the scenery into glorious Technicolor. Get used to seeing brown, grey, and red.

The movie has its moments of humor as well, mostly when the two main characters have childish ideas of, or nonchalant attitudes towards, something that is strange or horrible. Along those lines, Mary and Max will recite things that they have heard like small children whose parents or older siblings just swore in front of them for the first time.

These are the kind of laughs that get startled out of you. It’s black comedy, which is an acquired taste for some.

Despite its grim situations and attitudes, like the main characters, the movie often has a certain child-like optimism to it as well. Themes of death, othering, and bullying are accompanied by themes of friendship, hope, and forgiveness, which can be just as strongly-felt. The characters transcend beyond stereotypes like the “aspie” or the generic bullied kid with their unique hobbies, views, and reactions. There are many bullied little girls out there (I was one once), but I think you’ll find that there is only one Mary Daisy Dinkle.

Mary And Max_avi_000731040

The music is simple and minimalist, comprised of different pieces, such as: “Perpetuum Mobile” (Penguin Cafe Orchestra), “A Swinging Safari” (Bert Kaempfert), and “Russian Rag” (Elena Kats-Chernin). It’s repetitive, often functioning as leimotif for different moods, locations, and characters. I think it sets the mood, and even accents it, well at times.

One uber-specific aspect of this film that I’d like to praise is the symbolism of Max’s typewriter. He writes all of his letters with it, while Mary’s early notes are all hand-written and misspelled, and we can clearly see that the “m” key is smack-dab in the middle of his typewriter. In essence, Mary quickly becomes the center of Max’s otherwise lonely world.


When a misunderstanding puts the two at odds, Max, in a fit of rage, rips out the “m” key and sends it to Mary in a parcel. This tells her that he doesn’t want to speak with her anymore, without any written words to literally spell it out. Later, Max tries to type a letter to the mayor, but he slowly realizes that, despite typing as he normally does, all of his “m’s” are missing. Then he runs out of ink completely. He purchases more, but that doesn’t change the fact that words containing “m” are out of his reach. He couldn’t even type his own name, unless he bought a new key, which he doesn’t.

Without the “m” key, he loses his very ability to communicate. With Mary, or anyone else. Friendship helped him cope with the confusion and stress of life, and he realizes how much he needs it only when it’s gone. He concludes this all on his own, while Mary realizes that she also took their bond for granted, and feels exceedingly guilty.

Nothing is worth giving up your great, meaningful connections. At least, nothing trivial, or coming from unaddressed miscommunications.

Even disregarding the two distant, global settings, America and Australia, this film goes out of its way to give you a genuine, universal human experience. Mary and Max acknowledges that life is different for everybody; some people have it easier, and some have it harder. But whoever you are, you need at least one friend, and you need to come to grips with your own flaws and hiccups.

*Pictures and video are the property of Icon Entertainment International




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