Affectionate portraits of 'the outsider'

Mary and MaxAnimator Adam Elliot has made a career out of affectionate, short filmic portraits of 'the outsider'. That culminated in his Oscar-winning 2003 short film Harvie Krumpet, the hero of which had Tourette's syndrome, and whose adopted daughter was a thalidomide baby.

Elliot's feature film debut, Mary and Max, is no exception. Both its title characters are misfits in their very different worlds. Mary is a socially awkward young adolescent, growing up in 1970s suburban Melbourne with her alcoholic mother and neglectful father. Max is a lonely New Yorker, a chronic overeater with undiagnosed Asperger's.

The film traces Mary and Max's unlikely pen-friendship over a course of decades. Isolated in their own social environments, they come to yearn for the human contact the letters provide. It's a paean to the power of friendship, although neither character quite realises the impact their letters have on the other.

'Mary gives Max panic attacks for the first half of the film,' says Elliot, talking to Eureka Street after the film's first screening for Melbourne media. 'The first draft of the script was very tame. But I realised there was not enough conflict, not enough drama. So they don't provoke each other deliberately, but they do unintentionally disturb each other.'

The film, like Elliot's earlier short films, uses a painstaking form of stop-motion animation, popularly known as 'claymation'. The medium has featured famously in more child-oriented fare such as the Wallace and Grommit films, and the TV series Gumby.

But while Mary and Max is animated, it's no kids film. It has its share of darker moments, including a suicide attempt and references to child abuse, as well as the more explicit portrayals of alcoholism, kleptomania and all manner of social disorders. Ultimately there are themes of betrayal and forgiveness, hope and redemption.

'Why can't you have dark themes in animation?' says Elliot. 'Is there a rule? Did Warner Bros make some Bugs Bunny rule 20 years ago that you're not allowed to have animated characters who die or try to kill themselves?

'There's a whole generation of animated feature films coming out now that deal with more adult themes', he adds. 'There's Persepolis, and Waltzing with Bashir, and even as far back as The Triplets of Belleville. It's great, because it means animation is evolving.'

Elliot is interested in portraying life in all its beauty and ugliness. He draws liberally (and affectionately) from the lives of those around him. Max is based on Elliot's own Jewish-atheist-Asperger's-overeating New York penpal.

'That's why his character is so authentic and believable. The aim for me is to create characters that, even though they're blobs of plasticine, the audience will empathise with them, so that if they do die, or something happens to them, they are moved.'

Mary and Max is serious at heart, but it is also very funny. 'We tried to do like The Simpsons does, so you have to watch it again and again and again to get all the little references.' He adds that after the film's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, one review lamented an over-abundance of scatological humour. A fart joke never hurt anyone, but in truth a lot of the sight gags are more subtle — keep your eye out for the Dame Edna stamp.

The details speak volumes. An opening montage sets the suburban scene of Mary's upbringing, including shots of a Sherrin footy on a tiled roof, and even a tyre swan. And so authentic is the feel of the film's New York location that then London-based Philip Seymour Hoffman (who puts in a wonderful performance as the voice of Max) reportedly felt homesick as he watched footage of the styrofoam and cardboard skyline.

While Elliot baulks at the easy judgment that he has an affinity for characters who are outsiders, on reflection he admits that it is in his nature to be drawn to such people. 'A lot of it has to do with my childhood: I'd befriend a lot of kids who were bullied or teased or ridiculed. My birthday parties tended to be this eclectic mix of kids who were outsiders, outcasts, marginalised, or seen as different.'

But his films, he says, are not just about empathy: 'they are about justice. It's actually trying to educate the audience and say: look, this person's quite normal. Spend some time in their shoes and you'll understand.'

I'm reminded of Todd Browning's 1932 horror film Freaks. That film, which stars real-life circus sideshow performers, purported to be compassionate and to subvert prejudice. But at the same time it feeds upon the revulsion it assumes its audience feels. Does Elliot feel he is in danger of that trap?

'In moments of self-doubt, I often think I'm exploiting these characters,' he admits. 'But I always think, no, it's okay because I'm educating people. And I really care about these characters. They're real to me.'

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Adam Elliot, Harvie Krumpet, Mary and Max, phillip seymour hoffman, toni collette



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Existing comments

Tim thanks for a wonderful article on the upcoming Aussie animation release. Was wondering whether to go see it and now can't wait for opening night :) Will take the whole family to this one.

Jeff Ritchie | 02 April 2009  

Very interesting interview, Tim. I love when animation isn't afraid to explore darker themes and ideas. Mary and Max sounds fantastic; will have to check it out.

Macca | 02 April 2009  

With insights like "'they are about justice. It's actually trying to educate the audience and say: look, this person's quite normal. Spend some time in their shoes and you'll understand.'" I must see it to confirm that I am QUITE normal.

Earth Solver | 03 April 2009  

Finally this sounds like an animation worth watching! I've always written them off as too bright and saccharine-sweet to fully enjoy. Adam Elliot comes across as such a wonderfully creative and flawed person - I hope his story can reach a wide audience.

Gemma | 03 April 2009  

An Australian Wallace & Grommit with a dark,and yet humorous, twist ?
-- you bet !!
-- two tickets please.

Noel Will | 03 April 2009  

It sounds like I won't have to borrow a child to take to see Mary and Max (like I do when I go to see a Wallace and Grommit or a Shrek). I love claymotion films ... love the minuteness of detail, the patience, the team work. Wouldn't I especially love a free double pass!

glen avard | 03 April 2009  

Sadly, I missed Harvie Krumpet - Mary and Max is on my must-see list. There are so many ways so many of us are flawed or abnormal or outsiders. What's normal anyway? Acceptance ... one of the keys, appreciation of difference ... another key ... onya Adam!

Anna | 03 April 2009  

Tim, I enjoyed the surprise of opening my email and reading your review of Mary and Max as I have been wondering when Adam Elliot's project would be complete and would hit the screens in Australia.

I loved Harvie and own the DVD and from your review it seems AE has gain created claymation characters which will make me think, smile and laugh! Looking forward to seeing it in the Easter Hols.

Liz Lillis | 04 April 2009  

Adam Elliot's feature film Mary and Max traces the power of friendship and uses 'claymation'. Darker portrayals deal with beauty and ugliness liberally. Blobs of plasticine are serious at heart and so authentic. Outsiders, teased or ridiculed, educate the audience. Exploiting these characters, no, they're real to me. (Summary using only Kroenert's words)

Roger Borrell | 04 April 2009  

The film MARY and MAX promises to be an innovative, artistic sensitive insight into the unique, non-judgemental friendship of two very unlikely characters.

This film would seem to reinforce the idea that Australian film productions, historically, have often created totally new dramatic presentations.

Maureen T.Couch | 06 April 2009  

This movie, like Wallace and Grommit, is a 'must see' for me for a number of reasons. I've tried to use Claymation and it's SO difficult! The darker side of people who are presumed to be 'different' is a theme that's worth considering by my entire family. And wow, to have a character based on one of Elliot's own friends is worthwhile investigating.

Diane | 06 April 2009  

Mary and Max sounds like a modern parable on friendship.

Cindy | 07 April 2009  

Adam Elliot knows how to stand in the shoes of 'the outsider'.He demands that we too take up a compassionate stance towards all whom we encounter..That the characters have to be manually crafted and painstakingly brought to 'life"is a metaphor for all investment in others.I'm looking forward to seeing 'Mary and Max'!

Anita Ferguson | 07 April 2009  

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