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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Mary and Max

June 12th, 2010

Mary and Max - DVD or Blu-ray

I believe I mentioned Mary and Max once in passing previously, as a film that a studio should pick up before the end of 2009 in order to lift the eligible number of animated films high enough to ensure there would be five Oscar nominations in the Best Animated Feature category. One of the other smaller films that were in the same boat was The Secret of Kells, which actually managed to earn an Oscar nomination, making it one of the biggest underdogs of Awards Season. After watching this movie, I'm thinking they might have chosen the wrong underdog.

This movie tells a very simple story: the story of a friendship between Mary and Max. We are introduced to Mary when she is just eight years old (voiced by Bethany Whitmore) and has a lot of questions about the world, but no one to ask. She doesn't have any friends at school, her father is very inattentive at home, and her mother is an alcoholic. One day, she decides to write to someone in the United States to ask some of these questions. That person, chosen at random, is Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman) a man with questions of his own. He too doesn't have any friends, mainly due to his social awkwardness, which later in the movie is diagnosed as Asperger's syndrome. Partly as a result of this condition, he has a strong desire for an orderly life, something Mary's letters shatter. Despite this, he responds and over the years they become friends.

Their friendship has its ups and downs, as do their respective lives. As Mary grows up (and is voiced by Toni Collette), she falls in love with her next door neighbor (Eric Bana), goes to college and studies mental illnesses, and even does her thesis on Max. Max, on the other hand, has a nervous breakdown, has a financial windfall, accidentally kills a mime... usual stuff for a New Yorker.

The film does an amazing job at balancing the dark subject matter with and the humor that comes from the more bizarre events in the lives of the characters. The impeccable voice work has a lot to do with this. Barry Humphries' narration adds a calm to the characters' calamitous lives. Bethany Whitmore is absolutely adorable as the younger Mary... your heart breaks as she describes her family situation, her lack of friends at school, etc., while she maintains a hopeful tone. The claymation also impresses, and while the different color schemes for Mary and Max's worlds may seem a little too "on the nose", it works. I also really like this art form, as there's something charming about seeing fingerprints in the characters as they move.

There are many critics who have compared this movie to Up, and while this might be overstating things a little bit, it is an absolutely wonderful movie and it really should have earned an Oscar nomination.

Extras on the DVD start with an audio commentary track with the writer / director, Adam Elliot. It's a solo track and like many such commentaries, it doesn't have an abundance of energy. That said, he does give more than enough information in his calm fashion. Next up is a 16-minute making of featurette and an 8-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. The former is has a dry sense of humor, but both are worth checking out. There are a couple of alternative scenes, which were thankfully not used. The movie is dark enough without an ending like that. Next up is Bethany Whitmore's casting session, in which she reads the first letter Mary wrote to Max. Finally, there's Harvie Krumpet, Adam Elliot's Oscar winning short film from 2003. You can definitely see the connection between the two films.

I do not have the Blu-ray to compare it to, but since it only costs 13% more, it seems clear that it is the better deal, even if there are no additional extras and even if the transfer is only average.

The Verdict

Mary and Max is an Oscar caliber film that ran up against stiff competition. It was one of three high-quality claymation films released in 2009 and while it was arguably the best, it was clearly the smallest and remains mostly unknown. The DVD and the Blu-ray both have enough extras that they are worth picking up, while the Blu-ray is the better deal and a contender for Pick of the Week.

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