[NOTE: Film viewed previously as a selection of the 2022 Seattle International Film Festival]
Question: how often can a film pull in a diverse audience, warm the heart, instill optimism, and take inspiration from an unlikely source. It’s rare, if ever. So, when it does land, it’s always a welcome surprise. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On was just that film, even from its marketing launch. First a series of YouTube shorts from the platform’s nascent 2010s heyday, now a feature-length mockumentary in the friendly vein of Spinal Tap or Surf’s Up. The moviegoer’s diet lacks the whimsical, great-big-world adventure to stir the imagination into a frenzy. The shorts could offer up a mild aperitif, introducing the character and his solitude on the daily. Going big by feature standards might not mean elevating the stakes so much as growing its sense of heart.
Director/Co-writer Dean Fleischer Camp, collaborating with Nick Paley, Elizabeth Holm, and Jenny Slate (the voice of Marcel), understands the assignment from the offset. A tricky order to grasp while expanding on the lore of a tiny mollusk with lofty ideas. One inch tall, with one eye and wearing thick sneakers, Marcel’s steps in a realm bigger than his size leave dense ripples. A wandering mind with a desire to discover, he traverses around a vast suburban home with the help of a hollowed-out tennis ball, and a system of ropes, bringing him up to the air, then back down to the ground for tea with inquisitive grandma Connie (Isabella Rossellini). The pair share the space with documentarian Dean (Camp), who recently moved back into the house to clear his head after a nasty breakup, striking a middle-ground friendship while placing a lens on his newfound subject as his inquisitive mind grows curious about the idea of family.
As it turns out, there was more of Marcel’s kind before an unseemly incident threw them out of the picture. Both human and mollusk begin a crafty search for evidence on where these missing family members could be, inadvertently causing a viral frenzy with Marcel’s accounts gaining online popularity, and multiple dry jabs at the mercy of the comment section. At the same time, there may be a heightened urgency coupled with the sudden notoriety as Connie falls ill, dealing with onset senility. So, the clock is ticking for this little guy to feel whole again, with those in his wild peer group.
Both Camp and Slate had no trouble preparing their thinking caps for this crazy venture, broadening a worldview as effusively as their lead. Balancing humor and solemnity is almost impossible to achieve. The mere sight of Marcel as a figure of honest resolve lessens the challenge and leaves it accessible. Like a gateway to a new dimension, one where cynicism and doubt almost don’t exist. And at times, through his eyes, that seems like the case. But it’s not the reality. Where Marcel calls home, there was some unexplained strife and disruption. The way we see our hero tackle both sides is an instant win. A fair victory for anyone needing to conquer the fracas of a dark past, and steady future fears. It’s a benefit to exposing the character’s psyche, burrowing deeper as the story unfurls.
All that Marcel is experiencing is purely genuine, a coming-of-age journey most might endure, though not exactly to the letter. Finding family, seeking a connection, or often preserving one before it’s lost. Both Slate and Camp, married at one time, make it personal. And it shows in their vocal intonation, bordering between playful and poignant. Weaving in and out of either end looks simplistic, and seamless in their perspective. Slate tapping into her inner child without abandon comes off as chipper, bouncy, and often unusual. Camp is more heard than seen, playing the straight man documenting the moment with a reserved flair. Even during those more oddball moments, such as a turf war with Dean’s golden retriever, or an affinity for 60 Minutes anchor Lesley Stahl who pops up as part of a minor subplot. Rossellini’s presence, meanwhile, does provide much appreciated “respect your elders” clarity. Her one-liners drop like unexpected gems, her camaraderie infectious.
That might be one thread of Marcel’s timeless quality. Beyond the relatable story, and a more than capable cast, is the look. Shot in a tight 1.55 aspect ratio invokes the feel of either a classic National Geographic special, or a Cal Arts student film. I could sense both in a realm combining live-action and stop motion, a blend conforming to one distinctive identity. Neither art form appears disjointed or out of position, in the eyes of Eric Adkins and Bianca Cline. Both share duties in cinematography, and the same brain to frame not just an image, but an emotional hunch as well. Likewise, to both Camp and Paley on the task of editorial assembly. And to composer Disasterpeace (Triple Frontier), whose score thrives in an echoey, percussive ambiance. A big house demands a diverse sound landscape, the bill is delightfully met.
Those most peculiar may not know where the name, face, and shoes originated at first. I know I didn’t, speaking as someone who hoped on the YouTube bandwagon late after high school. Whether the feature version of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is one’s first encounter, or hundredth with this thimble-sized protagonist, the sensation shouldn’t be any different. It’s an introduction, all the same, to an icon of confidence. One whose lease on life is challenging to look away from, even awe-inspiring. Slate and Camp have both pulled off a grand feat in one of the year’s best films, to put our life’s philosophies in a more pragmatic or wholesome frame. And do so with a charming visual palette to back it up, clever faces included. The venture, all told, still seems unbelievable. But after learning about this bivalve and just where he’s coming from, there’s no doubt his footsteps will be legendary. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On opens in NY/LA June 24, Seattle July 8, wide July 15; rated PG for some suggestive material and thematic elements; 89 minutes.