It seems fitting that the 2009 Sundance Film Festival would open with a film like Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max. It is a film festival built on the celebration of unique and innovative films, and in that regard this year’s opening night selection is right at home. The high tech claymation saga follows the long distance friendship of a young Australian girl named Mary and a 44-year old obese New York man named Max. They are drawn together through equally troubling lives and a shared loneliness.

Unapologetically bleak and delivered with dashes of sweetness and sharp wit, Mary and Max deserves notice for being such an unexpected change of pace. Its darker themes include Max’s battles with obesity, depression and Asperger’s syndrome as well as the alcoholism, depressingly poor parenting and chronic loneliness that surrounds sweet Mary. The characters are brought to life brilliantly with actual voice performances, rather than just actors lending voice to character. Phillip Seymour Hoffman brings Max to life with a deep, raspy voice and grizzled tone. His performance behind the microphone gives the character an unwavering authenticity. The same can be said for both Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette, who voice Mary in different stages of her life.

Along with great character work, both story and voice, the film has a beautifully constructed aesthetic. From the gritty and gothic New York skyline to the bleak yellowness of Mary’s world in Australia, Elliot and team have created environments that become compelling characters in their own right. It shows off an attention to detail that reminds us of some of the best in the stop-motion world, from the creators of Wallace and Gromit to Henry Selick’s work on The Nightmare Before Christmas. The only problem to be found with Elliot’s work is that he allows it to run a little long in the third act, unnecessarily dragging out some of the film’s darker moments for dramatic effect. But at 92 minutes, I wouldn’t exactly say that it is such a bad thing.

In the end, as I said before, Mary and Max feels like the perfect sort of film to open a festival like Sundance. It is equal parts sweet and dark, surprisingly mature and distinctively ambitious. Kudos to Adam Elliot, former Oscar winner for his short film Harvie Krumpet, for making a film that is so dark, yet so vibrant and full of life. And kudos to Sundance for leading with such an ambitious work.

Grade: A-

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