Sundance opens film fest by breaking the mold

For the first time in the festival's 25 years, founder Robert Redford kicks off things with a feature-length clay animation film, <i>Mary and Max</i>, which innovates on many levels.

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
3 min read

PARK CITY, Utah--The Sundance Film Festival broke the mold--so to speak--when it kicked off Thursday night with a feature-length clay animation film, Mary and Max, which innovated on many levels.

Robert Redford opens the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Thursday night. Michelle Meyers

Robert Redford's annual opening night speech, which preceded the screening, was the perfect prelude to the Australian-made film. After assuring the packed auditorium that "even when times are bad (economically and politically)...it can be good for artists," Redford assured the audience that Sundance would continue to be a showcase for work that's diverse, unique, and often full of "surprise."

And when it came to Mary and Max, all three applied. It was certainly no Nemo or Wallace and Gromit film.

Directed by Adam Elliot and produced by Melanie Coombs, Mary and Max is the tale of two unlikely pen pals: Mary, played by Toni Collette, is a lonely, chubby, 8-year-old girl living in the Melbourne suburbs, and Max, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a 44-year-old severely obese New Yorker with Asperger's syndrome.

The film is dark in terms of humor, content, and aesthetic. Both main characters are constantly struggling personally, death surrounds them, and even their relationship goes through tumultuous times.

But at the same time, it's also a sweet film, conveying the importance of friendship, and of accepting oneself for strengths and weaknesses.

"We all have disabilities," Elliot said in a question-and-answer session after the screening. "It's about accepting your flaws and not trying to hide behind them."

No matter how immersed you get in the characters and the storyline, it's impossible to watch the film without marveling at the impressive animation, which got zero help from computer graphics. It was 100 percent "in-camera," as Elliot explained, which meant every single shot was taken of an actual, physical object that had been manipulated. The rain was actually fishing wire; the fire was red cellophane; the water was 50 tubes of sexual lubricant, he said.

That also meant the 92-minute film took 57 weeks to shoot, working almost seven days a week.

Mary and Max promo
A promo from 'Mary and Max'

"It was like making love and being stabbed to death at the same time," Elliot said about tedious filming process. "It was like watching paint dry."

The film's old-school stop-motion animation techniques were, however, helped along tremendously by modern day technology: Each frame was shot with Canon Digital SLR still image cameras, which capture raw images in a 4K motion-picture resolution. Cutting-edge software allowed the filmmakers to get instant feedback on shots. And an innovative post-production content management system was also used and designed especially for the film.

Still, what drives Mary and Max is the story, which Elliot said was based on his own "pen friend" who he has been writing for more than two decades and to whom he dedicated the film.

This is Elliot and Coombs' second film at Sundance. Their 2004 Sundance film Harvie Krumpet went on to win the Academy Award for best-animated short film. It was announced Thursday that Mary and Max will also screen at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

Mary and Max is just the first of 118 feature-length and 96 short films that will premiere at the festival, which runs through January 25 and is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

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