Clay animation has come an awfully long way since 1908’s intriguingly titled ‘The Sculptor’s Welsh Rarebit Dream’ (produced by the manufacturing company of one Thomas Edison – was there anything that chap didn’t invent?). Last week I saw Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max, and discovered something entirely new. Comedy comes naturally to clay, obviously. It can be creepy, too: just try to watch the empty-eyed, silent penguin in The Wrong Trousers looking suddenly at the camera without jumping a mile. And you only need to see Jack Skellington dressed as a tattered Santa Claus, falling spectacularly from a blown-up sledge in The Nightmare Before Christmas to find it captivating and otherworldly as well. After Mary and Max, though, here’s a new find: clay can be easily as poignant, dysfunctional and human as – well – humans.
It’s the story of plain, neglected 8-year-old Mary, living in a bland, sepia-toned suburb of Melbourne. The narrator explains that her eyes are the colour of ‘muddy puddles’, and she has a distressingly poo-coloured birthmark on her forehead. She’s neglected by her distracted father and alcoholic mother, and one day starts a correspondence with an address she finds in a Manhattan phone book: Max, a middle-aged, obese, atheist Jew with Asperger Syndrome. Max lives in a film-noirish greyscale world of social anxiety, in which his only contacts to the outside world are his therapist, his fat-fighting class, and the man at the bus stop who keeps dropping cigarette butts on the floor.
There are some hard, ugly themes in this film, including severe depression, alcohol abuse and mental illness. The rumbling, fairy-tale tones of the narrator stand in grimly ironic contrast to the dreary situations of the characters. That doesn’t diminish the grace of the storytelling and soundtrack, though (the final scene is the most stunning use of Puccini’s Humming Chorus I’ve seen in a while), nor the oddball humour of Mary and Max’s letters.
‘Do you have a favourite-sounding word?’ asks Max, ‘My top-five are “ointment”, “bumblebee”, “Vladivostok”, “banana” and “testicle”’.
In the end, the grace wins out over the sadness. Friendship really can transform a miserable life. It’s amazing what they can do with plasticine, these days.