Movie Review: “Marcel the Shell with Shoes” — Respecting a Child’s Sense of Wonder

By Betsy Sherman

Marcel the shod shell is a work of depth and inspired silliness, structured with moments of quiet contemplation between laughter.

Marcel the shod shell, directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, and Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline.

The protagonist of the precocious and gregarious creature of the little boy of Marcel the shod shell. Photo: A24.

As comedian/actress Jenny Slate recounts, the crushed falsetto voice that was the source of her character Marcel just emerged one day. It was Slate’s husband at the time, Dean Fleischer-Camp, who assembled the elements that materialized the voice: a seashell, a googly eye and a tiny pair of doll’s legs with shoes. The pair expanded on Slate’s riffs as Marcel in a 2010 stop-motion animated short. A few other shorts and a few books followed. The precocious and gregarious little boy had become a cult hit.

Now the couple who are no longer married (they totally get along) have achieved their dream of putting their creative offspring in a feature film. Fleischer-Camp makes a smashing first fiction film with Marcel the shod shelland Slate (from Milton, Mass.) once again proves she’s one of the funniest people with her largely improvised lead vocal performance.

If it seems like a long time from the original short, the wait was definitely worth it. marcel the film, made independently with a cast of well-chosen collaborators, is neither new nor complacency for its already formed fan base. It’s deep work as well as inspired silliness, structured with moments of quiet contemplation between the laughs. The humor isn’t flippant, but still tied to the character, and the film leaves viewers with a well-deserved sense of uplift. The first comparison that came to mind was with Spike Jonze’s adaptation of where the wild things are. marcelalso, embraces and respects a child’s sense of wonder and uses cinematic elements to construct a world that blends nature and fantasy.

Slate and Fleischer-Camp wrote the film with producer Elisabeth Holmes (screenwriter of the 2014 film Obvious childwhich starred Slate) and Nick Paley (who also edited). marcel doesn’t have a plot so much as a dilemma, leading to a pivotal action that helps resolve the dilemma. There is a parallel emotional event that is very significant to the film’s overall theme of accepting impermanence and savoring the here and now.

marcel begins as a very bizarre version of the English novelist Mary Norton Borrowers series, stories about tiny humanoids who live within the walls of a house and “borrow” food and objects from the occupants. The house here is an Airbnb rental; the live occupants are documentary filmmaker Dean (played by Fleischer-Camp) and his dog Arthur. Dean has been between homes since he and his wife separated (but they totally Get along well). We don’t see the moment when Marcel (stop-motion animation and voice of Slate) reveals himself to Dean. We catch them at a point where what started as a series of interviews by the filmmaker led to a friendship, a friendship marked by the relentless and hilarious shell-with-shoes-on teasing.

The camera takes a sympathetically low point of view as Marcel drives around the house in his tennis ball “rover”. Interviews conducted by Dean show that the shell with shoes is frank, opinionated and sometimes philosophical. He is resourceful in solving logistical problems that challenge his small scale. He swings on ropes, fashions pulleys, and uses honey to stabilize his feet as he climbs the wall. While on a tub supply mission, Marcel praises the strength and usefulness of that short, curly hair accumulating in the drain, and is puzzled when it cracks Dean.

Marcel’s playful spirit is tinged with a sense of loss. His story includes a fateful day, over a year earlier, when his family and the rest of the Little People community disappeared, leaving only Marcel and his grandmother, Nana Connie. The mysterious event seems to have something to do with the man and woman who previously lived in the house, which the beings used to hide from. Either way, Marcel and Connie had to fend for themselves.

As the voice of Connie, Isabella Rossellini brings warmth and a touch of the exotic. Marcel explains to Dean: “She’s not from here. She comes from the garage. That’s why she has that accent. She traveled here in coat pocket when she was very young. Out of necessity, after the man and woman left, Connie taught herself how to cultivate the garden. She also learned how to communicate with insects there – fans of the actress will relate to Rossellini’s Sundance TV science series Green pornin which she explains and stages insect mating rituals in costume (she holds a degree in animal behavior).

Dean uploads Marcel’s interviews to Youtube, and the video quickly goes viral, spawning memes and shoutouts by the likes of Conan O’Brien. Marcel loves attention, but, he thinks, “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 just to take selfies, he concludes, “I don’t feel like this is the task force I was looking for.”

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

This wonderful intrusion does not derail marcelthe history of the relationship or stray from its themes. Connie had a small health problem; Marcel is a gentle and competent guardian, but worry gnaws at him. He has cold feet about to walk in front of the 60 minutes camera. “What if everything changes?” he asks his Nana. “marcelloshe said softly, “I’ll be fine.”

This and other touching moments underscore just how wide-eyed film-Marcel came from the original DIY short. Now brought to life by puppet wizards The Chiodo Brothers, seashell eyes – with lids! – are expressive, shading their moods from elated to discouraged (there are also tears). The terrific work of the animation team is matched by live-action cinematography by Bianca Cline and production design by Liz Toonkel. All speakers retain a sense of spontaneity in a medium that requires meticulous planning. Praise is also due to Disasterpeace’s musical score.

They all prepped the little guy for his close-up, which he pulls off beautifully.

Betsy Sherman wrote about movies, old and new, for the boston globe, boston phoenixand unfit bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in Archives Management from the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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