Film Review: “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” — Respecting a Child’s Sense of Wonder

By Betsy Sherman

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is a work of depth as well as inspired silliness, structured with moments of quiet contemplation in between the laughs.

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, and Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline.

The precocious and gregarious little-boy creature protagonist of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Photo: A24

As comedian/actress Jenny Slate tells it, the squashed falsetto voice that was the genesis of her character Marcel just emerged one day. It was Slate’s husband at the time, Dean Fleischer-Camp, who assembled the elements that would physicalize the voice: a seashell, one googly eye, and a teensy pair of doll’s legs with shoes on. The couple developed Slate’s riffs as Marcel into a 2010 stop-motion animated short film. A couple of more shorts, and a few books, followed. The precocious and gregarious little-boy creature had become a cult hit.

Now the no-longer-married pair (they totally get along well) have realized their dream of putting their creative offspring in a feature film. Fleischer-Camp makes a smashing fiction-film directorial debut with Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, and Slate (of Milton, Massachusetts) shows once again that she’s one of the funniest people around with her lead vocal performance, much of it improvised.

If it seems a long stretch since the original short, the wait was absolutely worth it. Marcel the movie, made independently with a well-chosen crew of collaborators, is neither a novelty nor a pandering to its already formed fan base. It’s a work of depth as well as inspired silliness, structured with moments of quiet contemplation in between the laughs. The humor isn’t flippant or wisecracking, but always tied to character, and the film leaves its viewers with a well-earned feeling of uplift. The first comparison that came to my mind was with Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. Marcel, too, adopts and respects a child’s sense of wonder and uses cinematic elements to build a world that blends nature and fantasy.

Slate and Fleischer-Camp wrote the movie with producer Elisabeth Holmes (screenwriter of the 2014 Obvious Child, which starred Slate) and Nick Paley (who also edited). Marcel doesn’t so much have a plot as a dilemma, which leads to a pivotal action that helps resolve the dilemma. There’s a parallel emotional event that’s highly meaningful to the movie’s overarching theme of accepting impermanence and savoring the here-and-now.

Marcel starts as a nicely freaky take on English novelist Mary Norton’s The Borrowers series, stories about tiny humanoids who live in the walls of a house and “borrow” the occupants’ food and objects. The house here is an Airbnb rental; the live-action occupants are documentary filmmaker Dean (played by Fleischer-Camp) and his dog Arthur. Dean is in-between domiciles since he and his wife split up (but they totally get along well). We don’t see the moment that Marcel (stop-motion animated and voiced by Slate) revealed himself to Dean. We catch them at a point where what started as a series of interviews by the filmmaker have led to a friendship, one marked by the shell-with-shoes-on’s incessant, hilarious teasing.

The camera takes a sympathetically low vantage point as Marcel tools around the house in his tennis ball “rover.” Interviews conducted by Dean show the shell-with-shoes-on to be forthright, opinionated, and sometimes of a philosophical bent. He’s resourceful in solving logistical problems that challenge his small scale. He swings on cords, fashions pulleys, and uses honey to stabilize his feet while he walks up the wall. On a supply mission to the bathtub, Marcel praises the strength and utility of those short ‘n’ curly hairs that accumulate in the drain, and is perplexed when that cracks Dean up.

Marcel’s playful spirit is tinged with a sense of loss. His back story includes a fateful day, more than a year earlier, when his family and the rest of the tiny-beings community disappeared, leaving only Marcel and his grandmother, Nana Connie. The mysterious event seems to have had something to do with the man and woman who previously lived in the house, from whom the beings used to hide. At any rate, Marcel and Connie have had to fend for themselves.

As the voice of Connie, Isabella Rossellini lends warmth, and a touch of the exotic. Marcel explains to Dean, “She’s not from here. She’s from the garage. That’s why she has that accent. She traveled here by coat pocket when she was really young.” By necessity, after the man and woman moved away, Connie taught herself to farm in the garden. She’s also learned how to communicate with the insects there — fans of the actress will make the link to Rossellini’s Sundance TV science series Green Porno, in which she explains, and acts out in costume, the mating rituals of insects (she holds a degree in animal behavior).

Dean uploads the Marcel interviews to YouTube, and the video soon goes viral, spawning memes and shout-outs by the likes of Conan O’Brien. Marcel gets a kick out of the attention, but, he muses “it’s an audience, not a community.” He uses the web to ask for help in finding his family. When fans show up in the yard only to take selfies, he concludes, “I don’t feel like it’s the task force I was looking for.”

But his plea has had the bat-signal-like power to attract Marcel and Connie’s superhero: Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes (says Connie, “We call it The Lesley Show”). Stahl and her crew (it’s a real 60 Minutes crew) come to the house to hear Marcel’s story and launch an investigation.

This wondrous intrusion doesn’t derail Marcel’s relationship story, or digress from its themes. Connie’s had a bit of a health setback; Marcel is a sweet and capable caretaker, but the worry has been eating at him. He gets cold feet on the brink of stepping in front of the 60 Minutes camera. “What if everything changes?” he asks his Nana. “Marcello,” she says gently, “It will.”

This and other emotional moments underline how far movie-Marcel’s googly eye has come from the DIY original short film. Now animated by puppetry wizards the Chiodo Brothers, the shells’ eyes — with eyelids! — are expressive, shading their moods from elated to downhearted (there are tears, too). The terrific work of the animation team is matched by the live action cinematography by Bianca Cline and production design by Liz Toonkel. All involved retain a feeling of spontaneity in a medium that calls for meticulous planning. Praise is due as well to the musical score by Disasterpeace.

They’ve all made the little guy ready for his close-up, which he aces, splendidly.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, and Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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