Sundance 2009: Mary & Max

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Mary & Max (Adam Eliot)

Sundance 2009 is upon us, and like the rest of the world, everything here is upside down. Those of us traveling in from the east, where it's snowy and bitterly cold, are getting the shock of 40-degree weather and dry ground in Park City, Utah, the home of the festival and a town that's usually more recognizable as a frozen filmcicle in late January. This year, the sidewalk and my boots have spontaneously developed a phenomenon called traction, and before the opening night film I made a grocery run in my shirtsleeves.

And as if that weren't enough, the programmers have chosen to kick off the fest with a feature length claymation film called Mary & Max. It's like Wallace and Gromit for grown-ups, or if you've seen Adam Eliot's Oscar-winning short Harvie Krumpet, you'll have an even better idea of what his debut feature is like. In fact Max is something of a variation on lonely friendless Harvie. He's a New Yorker with Asperger's instead of an Australian with Alzheimer's, and he's voiced by an unrecognizable Philip Seymour Hoffman instead of described in the third person by Geoffrey Rush, but these two are cut from the same hunk of clay.

Mary is a little girl living in Australia who becomes Max's pen pal, and while the film is driven by a deep vein of cuteness, it's far too grim, crude, and occasionally naughty for young viewers. It's a strange hybrid of sentimentality and bluntness, beautiful to look at, textured like stone and tweed, a welcome dose of old fashioned, hand-manipulated meticulousness in an age of digital animation. And it's occasionally witty and clever, but it might have been more enjoyable at 45 minutes instead of a long 97, thinning in spunk and ingenuity as it goes.

* * *

What does it mean that this is the opening film of Sundance 2009? Because its goal is to find new talent, Sundance seems to inspire more tea-leaf-reading and crystal-ball-gazing than most festivals. What will be the big hits, what will be the duds, and what will be the overall theme and tone of the fest? Will a distributor snatch up new movies starring Sam Rockwell, Jim Carrey, and Robin Williams (in two films this year), or will a debut like Brick or Half Nelson or Ballast made by a heretofore unknown filmmaker burst out of nowhere and knock us out?

We have no answers just yet, but we'll report back at regular intervals. Not with guesses but with actual scientific results. We're viewing and thinking and titrating and centrifuging nonstop to bring you a nutritional summation of Sundance 2009 and a preview of what's coming to theaters later this year.

What we're not doing, so far, is freezing. Imagine that.

(If you're impatient, you can find instant, ill-considered reactions to most of the Sundance films I see here at Twitter. If you're extremely patient, you can find last year's coverage here at Paste.)

Mary & Max (Adam Eliot)

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