Marcel the Shell With Shoes On originated in 2010 as a series of tossed-off, no-budget YouTube videos created by Jenny Slate and her then-husband, Dean Fleischer Camp, based on a random goofy voice Slate reportedly conjured one day while they were at somebody’s wedding. Being the thoughts of a young, sentient, one-eyed seashell, the videos — lo-fi stop-motion combined with live action — soon found a wide audience thanks primarily to Slate’s lilting, self-effacing delivery of Marcel’s alternately wry and innocent observations about life in general and life as a tiny shell specifically. (“Guess why the bus didn’t show up today? Because the bus is a caterpillar, and it grew up.”)
Cute, sure. But to any sane person, this probably seems like a pretty thin idea on which to hang an entire feature. Any attempt to do so, one suspects, would result in something either annoyingly slight or needlessly grandiose — either a glorified YouTube video or a bloated exercise in world-building. Refreshingly, however, the film version of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On manages to tiptoe around these pitfalls. It makes its own insignificance a virtue, then uses that to slip us into an unexpectedly moving story.
The picture is structured like a mock documentary with Camp (playing some version of himself but remaining mostly out of frame) having discovered Marcel and his kindly, doting grandmother (voiced by Isabella Rossellini, whose accent is explained by the fact that “she’s not from here — she’s from the garage”) hanging out in his Airbnb. There were others like them, we learn, but they were separated when the human couple who used to live in the house split up and the man dumped the entire contents of his drawers into a suitcase and left. One of those drawers included Marcel’s family and his whole shell community.
Not unlike the shorts, the feature gets a lot of mileage out of brief glimpses into Marcel’s miniature life and the ingenious ways he survives and entertains himself. He nestles inside a tennis ball to get around the house. He keeps a piece of lint on a leash as a pet. He sleeps on a slice of bread. He steps in a sticky puddle of honey whenever he wants to walk on the wall or the window. (He may be a shell, but he’s not a snail.) He and grandma settle in once a week to watch 60 Minutes, especially any segment featuring Lesley Stahl. (“We just call it ‘the show.’ That’s how much we like it,” Marcel declares.)
But Marcel worries about his grandmother, who shows signs of dementia. Like many of the rest of us, there’s a twinge of denial in the way he talks about her struggles, as if he’s convinced she’ll get better eventually. And right there, we can sense the turn: For all its surreal glimpses into the world of a chatty little shell, the film’s real power comes from its forays into the absurdities of human existence. As Marcel is interviewed about his own life, he expresses curiosity about Camp’s, noting that the man might be happier if he got out from behind his camera once in a while. Marcel discovers the internet when his videos start to go viral, and he learns about the perils of celebrity when fans manage to locate the house and start showing up on the front lawn to take selfies. Slowly but surely, the film goes from being about Marcel to being about the rest of us.
All of this could have been insufferable, but by never dwelling on any one aspect of Marcel’s existence for too long, Slate and Camp allow the picture to jump lightheartedly from mood to mood, observation to observation. As a result, the film is gentle and sweet without ever being twee or precious; it doesn’t dwell on its cleverness or its novelty or, for that matter, its profundity. Its effervescence is its secret weapon: Thanks to the disarming simplicity of the filmmaking — the basic animation, the unostentatious mockumentary style — we might not realize we’re being slowly eased into a story about the importance of belonging, about an individual’s place in the world and about how the only way to forge stronger bonds is to break free of those very bonds. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is the most unassuming and delicate of movies, but don’t be shocked if it leaves you in ruins.
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