It’s often beneficial to step back and observe life from a different perspective. In the case of Marcel, we get a shell’s eye view, but the outlook of this tiny, one-eyed shell creature wearing little shoes is remarkably incisive. “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” evolved from a series of three short films created by Dean Fleischer Camp and Jenny Slate, released on YouTube between 2010 and 2014. Following stop-motion animated characters interacting in a live-action environment, the film, like the shorts it’s based on, takes a mockumentary approach to storytelling, with director Camp playing the director within the movie, and Slate voicing Marcel, whose wry sense of humor and curious, often optimistic, and determined approach to surviving as a very tiny creature in a very big world belies a feeling of loneliness and grief.
While “Marcel” opens with a series of vignettes of Marcel’s day-to-day life and some of the innovations he’s made akin to (and sometimes reusing bits from) the shorts— he uses a rope tied to an electric mixer to shake fruit out of the trees, rolls around inside a tennis ball as a fast and safe mode of transportation, and keeps a piece of lint tied to a string for a pet— Camp and Slate (who wrote the screenplay along with Nick Paley) give the feature an overarching narrative that develops as the film progresses. Marcel lives with his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini, in a casually heart-breaking vocal performance), but he used to have more family too. His parents and other friends and relatives all disappeared after the couple whose house they live in split up, with Marcel believing they were all in a sock drawer the man took with him, leaving Marcel and Connie behind. The woman moved out and turned the home into an Airbnb, with a series of travelers coming and going and apparently not paying Marcel and Connie any mind— until Dean. When Dean turns his camera on Marcel and starts uploading videos of him to the internet, which quickly go viral, they start to think that maybe they can use that fame to track down Marcel’s lost family.
While the human characters never distract from the animated ones, we glean just enough of their stories to form a meaningful connection. It’s interesting that both the loss and recovery of Marcel’s family involve break-ups: the turbulent separation between his house’s inhabitants Mark (Thomas Mann) and Larissa (Rosa Salazar), and the divorce between Dean and his wife, which brought him to the Airbnb and into Marcel’s life. While Dean tries to remain as much as observational filmmaker as possible, we get a real sense of the deep bond that has formed between him and Marcel by the end of the movie, and that their presence in each other’s lives has helped heal them somewhat.
Naturally, Marcel is the real star of this show, with Slate delivering what surely must be one of the greatest voice-acting performances ever, pitching her voice extra high and nasally to craft a character that is inherently funny and charming. The finding your family narrative is far from a fresh concept, which makes it all the more remarkable that “Marcel” soars so far beyond becoming either too saccharine or too conventional. Marcel’s blunt observations cut right to the heart, like when he’s describing his family, or loss, or realizing just how big the world outside really is. In one scene, Marcel is convinced— despite Dean’s attempts to dissuade him— that if they travel to the top of a very tall hill, they will be able to see the car that belonged to Mark, and determine where he lives now that way. His determination is charming— especially when he straps on a helmet and a match for protection in case things get dangerous—but it’s a sobering realization once he actually gets out there and realizes how many cars there are, and how many houses, and how small all those houses and cars look from a birds-eye view of the city, and how this is just one part of one city in a world filled with many cities.
Marcel and Connie’s relationship is also endlessly sweet and ultimately tear-inducing, with Dean’s camera allowing the audience to witness the sacrifices she makes for him without his knowing. It’s a testament to the care and quality of the storytelling that we feel so deeply for characters that don’t move or emote much (visually, at least), but the animation team deserves heaps of credit as well. I can’t think of any other animated or partially-animated movie that looks quite like “Marcel” does, and animation director Kirsten Lepore and the team at Chiodo Bros. Production pioneered new technology that would allow them to animate stop-motion characters in a live action world with real props and animals and humans, while maintaining the hand-held, documentary-style approach to the filmmaking (you can read a bit more about this process in this article from Inverse). It looks simultaneously natural and whimsical and makes it very easy for the audience to make the leap in believing that these little objects are living and breathing and that the human characters don’t question their existence.
Coming along so long after the first short was released online and became a sensation, “Marcel” is also able to and does become semi-autobiographical, with Dean within the film uploading the short films he makes of Marcel online and watching as they grow in popularity. But the commentary is relative to the nature of internet stardom and social media today, which is extremely different from what it was in 2010. Marcel doesn’t truly make strides in the quest to find his family until he is approached to do an interview on his favorite TV show, “60 Minutes.” For all the views and comments his call to action receives online, as he observes while scrolling through them, none of them are actually helpful, and his house quickly begins to receive a lot of unwanted attention from bystanders. “Marcel” easily could have gone the route of pointing out all the good that can stem from having an online presence, but more often, the film shows how it can bring out the most shallow qualities in people, people who choose to take part in something by leaving a comment or taking a picture, but who refuse to invest the time or energy or empathy in helping a cause beyond that.
That all may sound a little bleak, but I assure you that “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is the perfect family film. Despite being set very firmly in the now, there is a timeless quality to the characters and the messaging that I believe will still ring true in years to come. For every hilarious nugget of humor, there’s a quiet and sincere observation made about the world that is just as moving. It could be as simple as Marcel stating that he likes to sit at the window and feel the breeze moving through his shell. Out of all the films made about finding joy in simple pleasures and finding connection, “Marcel” is among the most cathartic and loving.
“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 90 minutes. Rated PG.