In this cinematic era of computer animation, the art of claymation (for which hand-moulded figurines are painstakingly photographed one frame at a time) is slowly dissolving. Aardman Studios (the guys behind Wallace and Gromit) seem to be the only ones who still possess the patience required to continue the practise into the 21st Century. It’s therefore refreshing to witness the Australian film Mary and Max (the feature film debut of Adam Elliot, who won an Oscar for his short film Harvie Krumpet), which was created using this claymation method to tell a bizarre, sweet and mature story. Tremendously inventive, clever, hilarious and wise,Mary and Max is a sublime movie of warmth and compassion about life’s dissonances. The animation is superb, the characters are endearing, the humour is abundant, and it honestly and thoroughly explores several topical themes. If American Beauty director Sam Mendes collaborated with Aardman Animations, the product would be something like Mary and Max.

Based partly on Elliot’s own life experiences, Mary and Max is a feature about two people leading a mundane existence on the fringe of society; finding solace only in their heartfelt pen-pal letters to each other. Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced by Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette) is a chubby, friendless 8-year-old living in the suburbs of Melbourne with her neglectful parents. One day, Mary randomly selects a name from the Manhattan phone book and writes a letter to him. She chooses Max Horovitz (Hoffman); a severely obese 44-year-old Jewish man with Asperger’s Syndrome living in the chaos of New York City. It turns out they have a lot in common – beyond loneliness and a complete lack of friends, they share a love of chocolate and a TV show called The Noblets. Thus begins a 20-year correspondence, with their friendship surviving more than the average diet of life’s ups and downs.

There’s plenty of playful narration (almost constant) courtesy of Aussie legend Barry Humphries which gives the film the feel of a children’s tale, but Mary and Max is not for kids. The movie doesn’t shy away from covering an array of mature, confronting issues, such as depression, sexuality, suicide, obesity and mental illness. Unlike most mainstream movies in which friendship saves the day and everybody is happy, Mary and Max is unmistakably dark – both physically dark, and dark in its depiction of reality. Max is never able to lose weight, and Mary can never escape the shadow of her parents. Mary eternally resides in her brown-tinged Melbourne suburb, while Max’s New York City is depicted as a grey metropolis whose only bright colours are those that come from Mary (a red pompom, for instance). The predominantly colourless and ominous cityscape of NYC is clearly symbolic of Max’s melancholy, mental distress and isolation. The ending in particular underlines the film’s dark disposition; showing that in real life there may be happy middles, but happy endings are almost non-existent. But despite this, Mary and Max is by no means a highly depressing venture; it’s a cinematic delight, with its downbeat content matched by constant laughs, a super-abundance of heart, and several deeply moving moments. Somehow, all of this is squeezed into an 85-minute timeframe, which at times feels longer due narrative simplicity and the occasional pacing issues. This is probably to be expected, however, as Elliot has only previously worked on shorts.

Even though a mere claymation short could take up to a year to create, old-school animators such as Adam Elliot and his team display a palpable affection for this approach. Mary and Max spent a total of five years in the making, with six dedicated animation teams working under Elliot’s direction in a converted factory in Melbourne, and each team creating an average of 4 seconds of footage per day. A huge kudos to Adam Elliot and his claymation team for creating such a vivid, picturesque world here, with the grim landscape evoking a film-noir feel. Every one of the characters, created from plasticine, is intricately and lovingly detailed. The detail does generate the illusion that we’re watching a computer-animated movie, yet the painstaking claymation process affords a look, feel and soul that has yet to be replicated through computers. One must have patience and passion to undertake a stop-motion feature of such scale, and these are two qualities Adam Elliot infinitely exerts.

Another tremendous pleasure of Mary and Max is the voice cast; a cornucopia of vocal talent from across the globe. Without a doubt, Philip Seymour Hoffman has proved one of the most versatile actors of recent years with his exceptional vocal work (Capote, anyone?), and he’s virtually unrecognisable here. This is, of course, the true essence of voice acting – a viewer should not be given the chance to focus on the actor providing the voice, but instead the character they are voicing. Meanwhile Bethany Whitmore is effortlessly endearing as the young Mary, and Toni Collette is pitch-perfect as Mary in her later years.

Through an immense artistry as well as an evident maturity emanated by the makers, Mary and Max affirmatively and genuinely answers a potent question: is there someone for everyone? In adulthood, we understand that we’re born into our families but choose our friends, and the 20-year friendship between these two vastly different yet curiously similar individuals proves the theory. Adam Elliot’s ambitious first feature-length claymation movie is an absolute delight, merging witty laughs with heartfelt emotion to generate this genuinely moving slice of animation. Mary and Max is, at least for this reviewer’s money, the best animated motion picture of 2009 (yes, better than Up). After the terrific Harvie Krumpet and now this, it’s clear Elliot is a highly talented filmmaker one should keep an eye on in future years.