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Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Colette and Barry Humphries lend their vocal chords to a captivatingly offbeat claymation about two very unlikely penpals.
Meet Mary. She's eight years old, has eyes the colour of muddy puddles and a birthmark the colour of poo. Her mother likes to cook with sherry ('tea for grown-ups') and her father, who works in a factory attaching the string to earl grey teabags, likes to spend his spare time in the shed playing with dead birds. Not your average animation heroine. But then Adam Elliot's clayography, as heralded by his Oscar-winning 2003 short, Harvie Krumpet - about an ever-optimistic Jewish WWII refugee whose lot in life includes being struck by lightning and losing a testicle - is far from your average animation.
Despite certain kooky flourishes (Mary debates the provenance of babies with her fellow title character - her theory is that they come from the bottom of beer glasses, while Max has been informed they come from eggs laid by rabbis) which might, on the surface, be mistaken for cutesy, self-conscious affectation, this film is not child's play - neither in style nor in substance.
Alternately heart-warming and heartbreaking, the elegiacally faltering, drawn-out (the narrative spans several decades) pen pal relationship between Mary and Max - an obese 40-something lapsed Jewish New Yorker with Aspergers syndrome, whose name Mary fortuitously plucks from the phonebook - is at bottom a canny device which provides a window on to the interior world of two lonely, marginalised souls. Their platonic love affair plays out like a ballroom dance between two terminally left-footed but devoted partners - awkward, fumbling, funny and tender all at once.
Philip Seymour Hoffman in particular deserves kudos for his brilliantly droll, expressive voicing of Max - well, expressive insofar as a persistent monotone, punctuated by off-kilter syntax and intonation can be ("I live with my cat, Hal, which is short for halitosis, from which he suffers"). So too do Adam Elliot and his 50-strong crew, whose labour of love took 57 weeks to shoot.
The film's boldly sombre palette urges you to look for subtleties in technique, rather simply be dazzled by the rainbow effect characteristic of most contemporary animation. Some touches are pristinely realistic and subtle, like the quivering of lips or the welling up of eyes on a face about to cry (there are quite a few tears shed too - an innovative use of sexual lubricant, a reported 2,400 teaspoons of which were used on set). Others, like the monochrome, unwelcoming vision of Max's New York - in which a flat black sky is coldly illuminated by white pinpricks of stars - are abstractly poetic.
While the film's swerves in tone can at times feel as uncomfortable as its protagonists, just like them, Elliot's unique film - a perfect marriage of form and content - has charm, curiosity and heart in spades.
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