Molded in clay but as brittle as bone china, Mary and Max are the fragile souls explored in Adam Elliot’s heart-rending yet hilarious stop-motion tour de force. Based on the true story of the 20-year correspondence between vulnerable pen pals, “Mary and Max” is lavished with exquisite, earthy detail and gives us two of the most richly realized and captivating characters presented in film this year. Elliot won the Best Animated Short Film Oscar for 2003s “Harvie Krumpet,” a 22-minute cavalcade of a long-suffering life. With this self described “clayography,” the Australian animator has added more than an hour to his storytelling but lost none of his emotional immediacy and comic esprit.
Mary Daisy Dinkle is a stumpy, bespectacled 8-year-old from Spotswood, a suburb of Melbourne. As noted in the flowery, funny script narrated superbly by Barry Humphries, Mary “has eyes the colour of muddy puddles and a birthmark the colour of poo.” Her father, Noel, works at a teabag factory, and retreats nightly to the backyard shed where he practices taxidermy on roadkill. Vera, her mother, is a sherry sloshing, anesthetized kleptomaniac who listens to the cricket, mindlessly avoiding the sticky wickets. Mary finds solace watching her favorite animated television show, “The Noblets,” while sitting on the settee with her pet rooster; Ethel, and supping on condensed milk. No pocket change to spare, she resourcefully makes her own Noblet toys with bits and bobs.
One day, in 1976, as her mother connives to filch from the local post office, Mary plops her finger on a random name in a New York City phone book and scribbles down the address. She sends a letter filled with the impertinent, inquiring questions only a child can ask without malice. Mary packs the envelope with her favorite sweets. The letter arrives at the dingy apartment of Max Jerry Horowitz, a 44-year-old overeating, depressive recluse with ears like skeleton keys. (This New York is blanched in the black and white of the Dead End Kids; conversely, Australia is filmed in the color of butterscotch.) Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, he shares his cramped quarters with a one-eyed cat named Hal, a parakeet called Mister Biscuit and an imaginary companion who goes by the name of Mr. Ravioli who hunches on a stool in a corner reading self-help books. Max gorges on a steady diet of chocolate hotdogs. Without a family of his own, Max accepts the unaccustomed role of surrogate uncle, regaling Mary with the stories of his marvelous and mad life, and unmaliciously answering questions he normally didn’t contemplate; where do babies really come from? Voiced with pitch-perfect weary recitation by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Max is a Crumb character, with a morsel of magnanimity.
The technical achievement showcased in “Mary and Max” is tremendous. The film’s production notes detail how the crew of fifty spent fifty-seven weeks creating 132,480 individual frames. They built 212 puppets and painstakingly made 808 Earl Grey teabags; they also used twelve liters of water-based sex lube for all of the water features, including tears and a river. Elliot and his crew construct Mary and Max’s specific worlds meticulously; the density of effort displayed by the wrinkles in the wallpaper.
As the pen pals trade letters through the years, the story hardens and intensifies. Voiced by a strong Toni Collette once she’s a teen, Mary graduates from college, marries and embarks on a career as an author, with distressing consequences. Fundamentally morose and always anxious, Max becomes more troubled amidst his stream of consciousness laden by personal religious and social upheaval. Trembling, he replaces Mr. Ravioli on the stool. Extremely humorous yet strangulatingly sad, “Mary and Max,” like a chocolate hotdog, is bittersweet.
Over the past dozen years, anime legend Hayao Miyazaki has created a succession of vigorous and luminous animated films. “Princess Mononoke” hurtles along like Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress.” The Oscar winning “Spirited Away” is a stirring fairy tale, while “Howl’s Moving Castle” is an inventive kaleidoscope. Immensely epic, complex and bold, these magical works are filled consistently with spectacular images and Shakespearean-styled characters. By comparison, his latest film, “Ponyo,” the quaint tale of a precocious goldfish with human aspirations, appears slight. It possesses the lightest tone of the four most recent Miyazaki feature films released in North America. And while it may not have been crafted specifically for tykes, it’s the first of the four to garner a G rating. This isn’t in itself a condemnation, but “Ponyo” is appreciably less visceral than its PG-rated predecessors.
After a sumptuous, wordless introduction to a teeming underwater life, the film moves above surface when the wayward goldfish is discovered by Sosuke, a 5-year-old boy who lives in a seaside village. Ponyo’s distraught dad, Fujimoto — a former human who disavowed humanity for his elaborate subaquatic sanctuary, and who looks, disconcertingly, like present-day Barry Manilow – searches for his daughter. Fujimoto’s motivation for finding her seems more skewed to the impact her human transformation will have on the world if she completes her metamorphosis than for the safety of his daughter. (Strange by a long way and voiced by a perturbed Liam Neeson, he’s a dad who always seems to be taking his work home with him.)
The sequences in the sea are wonderful. And Miyazaki crafts a fabulous set piece where hurtling tsunami-like waves, made of giant fish under Fujimoto’s spell, swirl around the village as though on a Formula 1 circuit while Ponyo, the red-headed scamp, sprints across the heads of the massive fish. The scene is bolstered by the rousing orchestration from longtime collaborator Joe Hisaishi.
But the narrative on land feels underwhelming, even when the village is flooded by the aftermath of the diluvian deluge. Miyazaki returns to his common themes of the battle between nature and humans, and continues his use of empowered female leads, but the story lacks the depth and the characters lack the intricacy of his previous efforts. Sosuke’s mom, Lisa (voiced by Tina Fey), who works at a local nursing home, is an indistinguished characterization, and his father, Koichi (Matt Damon), is a boat pilot too rarely incorporated into the plot. (There is a nifty sequence where the father and son communicate by lighted Morse code with Sosuke flickering messages from the balcony of their hilltop home while Koichi returns signals from the bridge of his boat.) The supporting parts, such as the half-dozen residents of the nursing home, are perfunctory. When the goddess of the sea and Ponyo’s mother, Gran Mamare (an ethereal beauty voiced by Cate Blanchett) appears, she hovers tranquilly, a soothing presence with hair shimmering like a shampoo commercial. Miyazaki’s previous films were a tapestry. “Ponyo” is a comforter.