Mary and Max

The animated and satirical comedy, “Mary and Max,” released in 2009, features two main characters with some very serious problems.  Mary, who lives in a small town in Australia in the 1970s, has a birthmark on her forehead and possesses severe self-esteem issues.  She gets no emotional support from her alcoholic mother, and her father spends all his non-working time practicing taxidermy in the garage.  She’s a lonely 8-year-old with no friends who looks out wistfully at a neighbor boy who can hardly communicate with her because of a severe stutter. She keeps a pet rooster and loves an animated cartoon called “The Noblets.”

Mary makes a package for Max in "Mary and Max."

Mary makes a package for Max in “Mary and Max.”

Max, an obese man in his fifties, is prone to anxiety attacks and can only stem his depression and loneliness by eating chocolate hot dogs, which are his own invention. He attends overeaters anonymous meetings even though he hates them, and dutifully sees a psychiatrist whose advice fails to heal him of either anxiety or obesity.  He rages against all forms of littering, particularly when smokers throw their cigarette butts down on the sidewalk.  He doesn’t have any friends either, except for an almost blind woman who lives in his apartment building and brings him soup.

Because Mary heard that babies in Australia are found at the bottom of beer glasses, she wonders how they arrive in America. At the library, she finds a New York City phonebook, sees Max’s address, and decides to write to him. This begins a decades long pen-pall relationship that details the pitfalls in Mary and Max’s lives and offers solace to two pitiful and depressing characters who cannot seem to improve their lives any other way. It’s remarkable that a young girl from Australia and an obese old man from New York would have anything in common.  However, they both love The Noblets and sweets, and that’s enough to fuel their long-term letter-writing relationship.

Neither Mary or Max are very attractive animated characters, but they possess a unique spirit that produces audience sympathy.  None of the other characters have much trouble coping with them because they are wacky too. Mary’s drunken mother would do damage to anyone’s psyche, while Max’s withdrawal to his solitude of his own apartment stems from his inability to withstand any connection with his fellow humans, even ones suffering the same complexes as himself.  Max doesn’t understand or feel love, and he cannot accurately guess emotions from other people’s facial expressions.

Even though Max loves the idea of sharing his life through letters with Mary, he is demanding of her.  Some of Mary’s experiences drive him to anxiety attacks, while she uses Max’s letters to make sense of the unfriendly world around her.  The only thing Max really strives for is to win the lottery, while Mary wants to find answers and overcome her troubles.  It’s hard to believe such a sad story works so well as an animated comedy, but lots of wonderful sight gags and unexpected plot twists keep Mary and Max funny and interesting.

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