Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

aka Kaze no tani no Naushika

2018 #130
Hayao Miyazaki | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

I watched Princess Mononoke before Nausicaä, and also checked out the Blu-ray’s special features. Those include the film’s original Japanese trailers, which emphasise that it’s “13 years after Nausicaä”, which intrigued me, because director Hayao Miyazaki had made plenty of other films in between. But, having watched the earlier movie, the connection and similarities become clear: Nausicaä features an ecological message, a threat from nature that isn’t, industrial humans (with a female general) being the actual villains, innocent townsfolk that need saving, a princess who’s the only one who understands, and a boy from a different kingdom who helps her. They’re not identical, of course, but there’s a lot of overlap…

The animation is nice without being quite as mindblowingly good as later Ghibli productions — they certainly hit the ground running, but they would improve too. The full-length English dub was created in 2005 (the original US release was drastically cut and rewritten) and boasts a helluva cast: Uma Thurman, Patrick Stewart, Mark Hamill, Edward James Olmos, plus Alison Lohman as the lead and a young Shia LaBeouf. I don’t mean to disparage those actors who primarily ply their trade dubbing anime, but these starry Disney-funded dubs do add a certain extra oomph to the vocals.

Nausicaä was only Miyazaki’s second feature, but already shows a lot of the themes and concerns that would go on to characterise his later movies. I feel like maturity and/or experience make some of those later films better, but this is still a powerful demonstration of his talents.

4 out of 5

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project, which you can read more about here.

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Princess Mononoke (1997)

aka Mononoke-hime

2018 #73
Hayao Miyazaki | 134 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG-13

Princess Mononoke

When I was first becoming aware of anime in the late ’90s, Princess Mononoke was one of the titles that everyone seemed to talk about (alongside the likes of Akira, and TV series like Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion). This may be in part due to it being the first Studio Ghibli film afforded a US release since Nausicaä (that was a bad experience for director Hayao Miyazaki — the film was cut by 25 minutes and the dialogue was drastically changed — hence the moratorium until Miramax persuaded him otherwise. Still, Miyazaki refused to sell the rights until Miramax agreed to make no cuts, which, considering Harvey Weinstein’s scissor-happy reputation, was a wise move). But it’s also because it’s a stunning film in its own right.

Set in medieval Japan, it’s a fantasy epic about the conflict between industrialising humans and the gods of the forest they’re destroying. Our hero is Ashitaka, a young prince who kills a demon but is infected by it. Travelling to find a cure, he encounters the aforementioned war and finds himself torn between the two sides. On one is Lady Eboshi, who razed the forest to produce iron in Irontown (imaginative naming), which has become a refuge for social outcasts. On the side of the gods is San, the titular princess (“mononoke” is not a name but an untranslated word, meaning an angry or vengeful spirit), a human girl raised by wolves who intends to kill Eboshi.

There’s more to it than that, because Miyazaki has imagined a very lyrical and meaningful story, about nature vs industry, and their possible coexistence. The theme isn’t exactly subtle in the film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t well portrayed. He’s populated the narrative with interesting characters, too. There’s little easy right or wrong here, with those on all sides coming across as nuanced individuals, with complicated relationships. Naturally, it’s beautifully animated, both the natural splendour and the physicality of the world, including some superb action sequences. Some of the violence is exceptionally gory, though — I can’t believe this only got a PG (if it was live action it’d be a 15 easily, if not an 18).

Bloody princess

However, while I really enjoyed the earlier parts, it begins to go on a bit towards the end. The last hour-ish felt like it needed streamlining, with too much running back and forth all over the place. When introducing the film’s Western premiere at TIFF, Miyazaki concluded by saying “I hope you will enjoy all of the ridiculously long 2 hours and 13 minutes,” and I tend to agree with him — you can have too much of a good thing.

I always feel like I should watch anime in its original language with subtitles, and sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. With Princess Mononoke, I was swayed towards the English dub because it was written by the great Neil Gaiman. There’s also a quality cast including the likes of Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson, and Keith David. It’s definitely superior to an average dub, both in how it’s written (sounding more naturalistic than the “literal translation” feel some have) and performed (more understated and less histrionic than they can be). Out of curiosity I turned the subtitles on at one point, and they were completely different to what was being said in the dub. No wonder fans hate it when a disc only includes “dubtitles”.

Even if I have some reservations about the film’s pace and length, primarily in its second half, it’s a beautifully-produced film throughout, and the good stuff is so good that I can’t but give it full marks.

5 out of 5

Princess Mononoke was meant to be viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project… just three years late.

Godzilla: The Planet Eater (2018)

aka Gojira: Hoshi o Kuu Mono

2019 #3
Hiroyuki Seshita & Kôbun Shizuno | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / English | 12

Godzilla: The Planet Eater

Picking up where the previous film left off, this concluding instalment in the anime Godzilla trilogy (which also doubles as the 32nd official Godzilla movie) sees the eponymous kaiju lying dormant while plans swing into action to bring Ghidorah, a being from another dimension who’s worshipped as a god by some, into our dimension, where it will eat Godzilla and then Earth itself.

Yeeeaaah.

But before we get to the headline monster mash, there’s an attempt at a plot. By the end of the last film, the alliance between humans and a couple of alien raced who’d helped us out was looking a bit shaky. What once looked like it might make for a Battlestar Galactica/Babylon 5-style conflict has turned out to be nothing so developed, and in this final film it noodles along, driven by minor supporting characters we have zero attachment to; a something-and-nothing plot line that kills time until it’s summarily wiped away. Meanwhile, down on Earth, we’re treated to dozens of scenes in which the trilogy’s equally unmemorable lead characters wander around waffling Religious Studies 101-level stuff about religion as propaganda and a manipulation tool. At one point a character talks about soup as an analogy for, like, society or something, coming to the observation that “unlike the soup, we have free will.” It’s a deep philosophical movie, man. About as deep as a bowl of soup.

All the while, we’re made to wait for the guy we came to see to wake up. Yes, Godzilla literally sleeps through the first half of the movie. Well, I can’t say I blame him.

Godzilla vs Ghidorah

On the bright side, it does eventually get to some good bits (that’s more than I’d say about the preceding instalment). There’s a sequence where the alien death cult religion summons Ghidorah, who initially manifests as some kind of shadow-demon that begins massacring everyone in the room, which is all quite creepy. It’s followed by a large-scale sequence where Ghidorah’s glowing energy snake-dragon form emerges from a space-time singularity and destroys the humans’ spaceship in some kind of temporally-messed-up way, which is also quite striking. You have to appreciate these individual sequences almost in isolation, because the plot they’re part of is a load of muddly claptrap.

Then there’s the climax, in which we get to witness a mountain-sized dinosaur-ish monster with atomic breath (Godzilla) battle an interdimensional three-headed dragon-snake apparently made of glowing yellow light (the trilogy’s take on Ghidorah). It has its moments, but it’s overlong and mixes in a bunch of the cod-scientific wannabe-philosophical gubbins too, which takes the wind out of its sails somewhat.

There have been some interesting ideas tucked away in this trilogy, both in how it reimagined the kaiju and their mythologies, and in the brand-new stuff it attempted to introduce with the alien races and their beliefs. Unfortunately, that promise has been lost under unengaging characters, poorly defined relationships, and the kind of philosophising you might expect from a Sixth Form student. It was bold to try to take the Godzilla franchise in a new direction, but that boldness feels squandered.

2 out of 5

Godzilla: The Planet Eater is available on Netflix now.

Shrek Forever After (2010)

2018 #132
Mike Mitchell | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / PG

Shrek Forever After

Shrek the Third suggested that DreamWorks’ golden-goose animated franchise was running out of fairytales to subvert, so this fourth — and final (for the time being) — movie turns its attention on the series itself.

Shrek is becoming disgruntled with life as a family man, so signs a deal with Rumpelstiltskin to have just one day as a “real ogre” again — but Rumpelstiltskin is a tricksy so-and-so, using the small print to land Shrek in an alternate timeline where he was never born. If Shrek can’t sort it out by midnight, he’ll be erased forever and the new timeline will stick. The filmmakers take this storyline as an opportunity to give us a look at how characters might’ve turned out in a Shrek-less world: Fiona is a warrior leading an ogre resistance, disillusioned by life after no prince came to rescue her; Puss in Boots is a fat, pampered kitty; and Donkey is working as a cart-donkey… but is otherwise pretty much the same. I guess some personalities never change.

Sundry of the series’ many supporting characters get the same treatment, and it’s in this upending of familiarity that Forever After finds its greatest entertainment value. The result therefore favours dedicated viewers, while newcomers would be advised to seek out the franchise’s first two instalments. While this conclusion might not be quite as good, or iconic, as that pair, it does have a lot going for it, making it a more fitting finale than its mediocre predecessor.

4 out of 5

Shrek Forever After is on BBC One today at 3:10pm, and will be available on iPlayer afterwards.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

2018 #254
Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman | 117 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

When it was announced a couple of years ago that Sony were developing an animated Spider-Man movie, there was, I think, some confusion about what they were playing at. The live-action movies were continuing, so this wasn’t a replacement. Was it connected? If so, why was it animated? If not, why did it exist? What was the point? Besides the obvious, anyway (popular brand + movie = money). Maybe Sony were just ahead of the game: where previously only one actor or series took on the mantle of a character at any one time, we’re increasingly in a world where multiple screen versions can exist simultaneously. Not that this film focuses on the same Spider-Man as the other ones…

Into the Spider-Verse begins by introducing us to… Peter Parker. Well, of course it does — he’s Spider-Man, right? But after a witty do-over of his backstory (second only to Batman’s in terms of the number of times we’ve seen it adapted, I should think), focus shifts to one Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn teenager struggling to fit in at his new private boarding school and deal with the pressure put on him by his police officer father. Escaping school one night to hang out with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), Miles gets bitten by a genetically-modified spider and… well, you know the rest, more or less. But Miles has more than just new powers to contend with: evil scientists have created a machine to open a doorway to other dimensions (who they are and why they’re doing it, I’ll leave for the movie to reveal). But the malfunctioning machine is likely to rip the universe apart, and it falls to Miles to stop it. Fortunately, the dimensional instability means a whole host of alternate-universe Spider-People show up to help him.

Spider-People

It’s bold to do a team-up movie with a whole host of characters we’ve never met before — it’s something DC were criticised for with Justice League as soon as it was announced, and we were actually introduced to half of that team before the team-up happened. Well, Spider-Verse isn’t really a team-up movie in the Avengers Assemble sense. This is Miles’ movie; the other heroes are a supporting cast. This is the kind of thing that goes on all the time in comic books — heroes popping up for cameos or supporting roles in other heroes’ books — and, of course, something Marvel have increasingly brought to the screen in the MCU. Spider-Verse handles its big cast smartly, both in terms of how much screen time they get, but also how they’re introduced. Comic books will often have a cameo occur assuming you know who that character is and why they’re significant, and if you’re not an avid fan this can be confusing. Spider-Verse is a bit smarter. Brand-new characters get a solid introduction, but there are others certain others who pop in with the assumption you’ll know who they are — and, considering we’ve had over 15 years of immensely-popular Spider-Man movies, you probably do. This isn’t really a film aimed at total newcomers to Spider-Man’s world, though you’d probably get by if you are.

That’s just one way in which Spider-Verse is perhaps the most comic-book-y comic book movie ever made. Another is the animation style, which works overtime to evoke comic books of old, while still being suitably modern and detailed. To describe the minutiae of all the little visual tricks and treats going on would take paragraphs and, frankly, get a bit dull — they’re interesting to watch, but not so much to read about spelled out in prose. Suffice to say the cumulative effect is certainly unique. Whether it always works… well, there were times I worried I’d actually wandered into a 3D screening and not brought any glasses, let’s put it that way. (I hadn’t.) But while it might take some getting used to, ultimately I really liked it.

King of the swingers

Indeed, that could be said of the film as a whole. Having heard a lot of advance hype from critics and preview screenings, Spider-Verse comes laden with expectation. Some earlier parts of the film play out a broadly standard superhero origin story, and, while it’s by no means bad, it doesn’t necessarily feel exceptional. But as more characters and concepts are introduced, and the film begins to pay off what it’s been setting up, it really comes together. It culminates in a powerful message — underlined by a closing quote from the great Stan Lee himself — that’s especially pertinent in the current climate of media criticism, which seems to see most people pushing for greater diversity of representation and artistic voices, while a vocal minority push back with thin “I’m not a racist but” arguments. Spider-Verse has an inclusivity at its core that is well balanced: if you want to shut out any messages and just enjoy a bunch of super-powered people engaging in hyper-kinetic action sequences, it can scratch that itch; but it demonstrates its core values, only stating them in summation at the end, rather than preaching them.

So it turns out that, yeah, Into the Spider-Verse lives up to the hype, if you give it the time to get there. It’s a movie that will satisfy comic book fans in particular, I think, but also anyone who enjoys animation as an artform. This isn’t your standard Disney/Pixar/Illumination/etc fare, but a thrillingly-realised vision of what animation can do.

5 out of 5

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is officially released in the UK today and the US on Friday.

It placed 9th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Bao (2018)

2018 #233a
Domee Shi | 8 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / silent | PG / G

Bao

This short film from Pixar played before Incredibles 2 in cinemas, so naturally it accompanies it on Blu-ray too. In it, a Chinese-Canadian woman is steaming dumplings (the titular bao) when one comes to life and grows into a little dough boy, who she begins to raise as a son.

As with many of the best short films, Bao takes a simple theme (though to say what the real core of the short is would give away some of the ending) and executes it succinctly. As is often the case with Pixar’s work, it aims at packing an emotional wallop, using it’s fantastical story to elucidate a real-life situation. It also doesn’t stint visually, with an overall animation quality that wouldn’t be out of place in a feature.

Bao is perhaps most notable as the first Pixar short to be directed by a woman. It only took 35 years and 35 shorts to get there. Considering some of the recent stories about the company, and the reputation it was gaining as a “boy’s club”, I guess this couldn’t come at a better time, though perhaps it’s to their credit that they didn’t seem to harp on about this aspect (I stumbled across the fact on Wikipedia). Given the quality and clarity of work on display, perhaps writer-director Domee Shi will get to be Pixar’s first female feature director too.

4 out of 5

Incredibles 2 (2018)

2018 #233
Brad Bird | 118 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Incredibles 2

Brad Bird — the director behind The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and not letting them release the IMAX version of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol on Blu-ray (I will never be over that) — returns to the movie that made his name with what must be Pixar’s most-requested (probably “only requested”, actually) sequel, Incredibles 2.

It’s been 14 years for us viewers since the last Parr family adventure, but in-universe it’s been no time at all — literally, as Incredibles 2 picks up by recapping the closing moments of The Incredibles, which saw the eponymous family of superheroes about to face off against villain The Underminer. That confrontation goes disastrously awry, landing the family in a whole heap of trouble; but it also attracts the attention of media mogul Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who believes superheroes should be made legal again. Recruiting parents Bob and Helen Parr — aka Mr Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) — and their friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) to his cause, the first step in Deavor’s public relations plan revolves around public crimefighting appearances by Elastigirl… alone. This leaves Bob holding the baby, literally, as he’s stuck at home with the kids while his wife gets to have all the fun.

At its most basic, Incredibles 2 is a gender-reversed do-over of the first movie… to a fault, in fact. The closing moments of the first film suggest a “family of superheroes” future for the Parrs, with them battling crime together. The sequel immediately works to put everything back in its place: the kids aren’t allowed to use their powers (until they must for the climax, natch); one of the parents gets to go off and be a superhero, while the other has to stay at home. The difference is it’s the man staying at home, and where Helen was consummate at looking after the kids, Bob finds it a challenge — because Men, amirite?

Left holding the baby... literally

Part of what made The Incredibles so successful as a movie was it mixed a plausible family dynamic in with the superhero capers, but here that home life aspect is what holds the film back, because Bob’s struggles with the kids are 66.6% cliché. His son struggles with homework, and Bob doesn’t know how to do it either! His daughter has boyfriend problems! The 33.3% that works comes courtesy of baby Jack-Jack, who is beginning to develop powers — plural. As the middle of the film drags on, becoming a bit “we get the point!” with Bob’s familial woes, the bright spot is continually Jack-Jack’s humorous madcap antics.

Mind you, the actual storyline in the superhero section isn’t much better. It revolves around the hunt for a mysterious villain, which naturally ends in a twist reveal… but as their true identity is pretty obvious as soon as they first appear earlier on, that reveal is a long time coming. Depending how critical you want to be, this part of the movie also has a lot of thematic points that seem to peter out or had nowhere to go in the first place. Is the film trying to say something about our addiction to screens and media? About the merits of vigilantism over bureaucracy? The dangers of being reliant on ‘higher powers’ to look after us? It touches on these things, and more, but they’re only given passing reference. Okay, yes, when you boil it down this is “just” a kids’ action-adventure movie and maybe we shouldn’t expect too much depth of thought… but Pixar are always hailed as being much more than that. Is it too much to expect that, if they’re going to introduce a topic or perspective, they’ll also at least close it out somehow?

Yet for all these story woes, Incredibles 2 does indeed work as a colourful action-adventure movie; gloriously so. The action sequences are absolutely thrilling, beautifully choreographed and constructed. They’re even better in 3D, too — Elastigirl’s stretchy powers seem to have been made for the format. And while the middle of the film may refuse to pay off the “family of superheroes” thing, the opening sequence and climax let them all in on the action, and it’s all the better for it.

Stretchy superheroics

What made The Incredibles one of Pixar’s best films, and one of the best films in the whole superhero genre, was the way it combined the action and adventure with family dynamics and concerns, seamlessly marrying the two. The sequel lacks the clarity and connectedness that first movie boasted, working very well as a fun superhero action movie but struggling as a family comedy-drama. It’s still an entertaining time (the sometimes-slow mid-section aside), but it’s not the genre and studio standout that the first film was.

4 out of 5

Incredibles 2 was released on DVD and Blu-ray (2D & 3D, but no 4K) in the UK this week.

Persepolis (2007)

2018 #27
Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France & Iran / English | 12 / PG-13

Persepolis

Adapted from co-director Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis is the story of an Iranian girl coming of age in the ’70s and ’80s, during and after the Iranian Revolution. Such a broad description is probably the only way to succinctly summarise it, because it’s kind of a sprawling film, about many different things — just like a life, I suppose. As well as being part biography, it’s also part history lesson, with a normal-family’s eye-view of the revolution and what followed.

Some of the events we’re shown are crazy-specific to her life (Satrapi has certainly lived a life!), and some of it is very specific to her background (i.e. all the Iranian Revolution stuff), but some of it is also very universal. For example, a sequence where she falls in love with a guy sees him depicted as a perfect, angelic boyfriend that she spends many magical times with… until he sleeps with someone else, then when she reflects on their relationship he’s an ugly ogre, and all those wonderful memories have a rotten mirror. Plenty of us have been through something akin to that, right?

Such subjective depictions are one of the benefits of the film being animated. Drawn in a simple, cartoonish style and mostly presented in black-and-white, the visuals are striking and sometimes very effective, but can also have something of a distancing effect — the atrocities of the revolution don’t hit home in quite the same way when, say, they’re executing a black-and-white cartoon rather than a real girl. Conversely, it was Satrapi who insisted on adapting her novel in animated form, with the goal of keeping it universal — in her opinion, “with live-action, it would have turned into a story of people living in a distant land who don’t look like us. At best, it would have been an exotic story, and at worst, a ‘Third-World’ story.” I suppose there’s some truth to that.

Punk is probably ded in Iran

I believe the film was produced in French, but the copy I had access to only offered the English dub. Unfortunately, this is frequently quite poor — the actors sound like they’re reading out slabs of text as quickly as they possibly can, rather than really delivering the lines. I can only presume this was necessary to fit the animation, but the end result leaves the audio feeling like a bad school presentation. I don’t hold this against the film itself, but it’s a word of warning if you have a choice of audio.

Persepolis is only an hour-and-a-half, but it’s a long one thanks to the scope of what it covers. It’s a frequently dark and bleak film too, taking in not just a violent revolution but also things like depression and attempted suicide. Frankly, it’s the kind of film which I don’t know if I’ll ever bother to watch it again, but it’s also a fascinating and informative experience that I’m unquestionably glad I’ve seen.

4 out of 5

Batman Ninja (2018)

2018 #146
Junpei Mizusaki | 85 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | Japan & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Batman Ninja

“This is madness,” exclaims Batman at one point relatively early on in this anime interpretation of the DC superhero. He could be speaking on behalf of us viewers… although, at that point, he — and we — don’t even know the half of it…

The story begins when a scientific experiment gone wrong hurtles Batman, most of the Bat-family, and Arkham Asylum’s inmates back in time to feudal Japan. Due to a quirk of the machine, the Dark Knight himself arrives years after everyone else, which has given the villains a chance to take control, each establishing their own fiefdom. Batman and his allies must find a way to send everyone back to the present day, before history is irreparably altered.

That’s just the start of the bonkers stuff that goes down in this film — never has the term “bat-shit crazy” been more appropriate. I mean, as if the basic setup wasn’t inherently barmy enough, by the time it gets to (spoilers!) a climax where the villains’ mansions morph into giant robots that then combine into a Joker-headed super-giant robot that fights against a giant monkey-samurai made up of hundreds of flute-controlled little monkeys, you’ll be wondering just how strong the filmmakers’ drugs were. And that’s not even the end of it. I don’t think there’s any rational way to assess the quality of the plot here — either you go with it and revel in the madness, or you just give up because it’s too much.

Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na Ninja!

The sense of possibly-drug-induced unreality is only heightened by the chosen animation style. The film’s clearly been produced with 3D computer animation, but rendered in a style designed to emulate 2D cel animation. It has the frenetic hyper-real movement made possible by the former, while otherwise trying as hard as possible to look like the latter, which makes for a weird disconnect. When you marry that up to the over-detailed, sometimes grotesque character and location designs, plus an overabundance of eye-popping colour, it becomes a surreal sensory overload. Oh, and at one point it changes style completely, just because it does, into some kind of sketchy watercolour thing, but only for a little while.

Batman Ninja is a strange movie all around. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but it was certainly an experience. Would our collective culture be better off if such madness was reined in, or is the world a better place for having this kind of battiness? You may have to judge for yourself, though I think only the bold or the foolish need apply.

3 out of 5

Batman Ninja is now available on Netflix UK.

Mary and Max (2009)

2018 #202
Adam Elliot | 92 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | Australia / English & Yiddish | 12

Mary and Max

I heard about Mary and Max around when it first came out. I can’t remember the context anymore, but it must’ve been positive because I’ve been meaning to watch it ever since; a desire only reiterated by its surprisingly firm placement on IMDb’s Top 250 (at time of writing, it’s ranked 176th). Nine years since said initial release (nine years?! Where does time go?!), I finally got round to, er, acquiring it, only for it to then pop up on Prime Video. C’est la vie, I guess.

Anyway, it’s about two very different and geographically distant, but similarly lonely, individuals who come into contact by the magic of mail. Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced initially by Bethany Whitmore and later by Toni Collette) is a little girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, who randomly selects a name in an address book at the post office and sends that person a letter. That person turns out to be Max Horowitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, unrecognisably, at least to me), a middle-aged obese New Yorker with mental health problems. He replies, and an unlikely, long-lasting pen-pal relationship is born.

The film labels itself as being based on a true story, but writer-director Adam Elliot has said (according to IMDb) that Max was inspired by “a pen-friend in New York who I’ve been writing to for over twenty years.” So, less “based on a true story” and more “very loosely inspired by a true story” — I mean, at least half the narrative (all the shit Mary goes through) is completely fictional. Does that matter? Maybe not… but also, kinda. While the film presents a gloomy, issue-heavy take on life, it also has a whimsical side, and that “true story” claim feels like it’s trying to justify both how grim things get and how fantastical they sometimes are, too. The fact it isn’t true — that it is, at least in part, just the product of the director’s kooky imagination — therefore feels like a bit of a con, at least to me.

Crying on crayon

Still, that doesn’t mean Mary and Max is without merit. It has an empathy for people who are disadvantaged and troubled, and for the importance of finding some measure of happiness in life, however small or awkward, that is quite touching. The heavily stylised designs, desaturated colour scheme, and stop-motion animation method suit the material well — as I said, there’s a lot of bleakness here, as both Mary and Max are battered by life, which juxtaposes effectively with the “kids’ picture book” visual aesthetic. That also allows for some flights of fancy which just wouldn’t work if the film were live action. Plus, as with almost any stop-motion movie, it’s an impressive technical achievement (trivia time: there were 133 sets, 212 puppets, and 475 miniature props, including a fully-functional typewriter that took nine weeks to create!)

Mary and Max’s position on a viewer-rated list like the IMDb Top 250 surprises me, because it’s an oddball little film that would seem to appeal primarily to a certain kind of viewer, and probably alienate many others with its unique mix of quirkiness and spirit-crushing realism. It makes for a sometimes uncomfortable experience — perhaps deliberately so — but underneath that lies a fundamental humanity that is, in a way, quite moving.

4 out of 5

Mary and Max is available on Amazon Prime Video UK as of yesterday.