I wish animation studios could make movies like this again. The existential issues of compassion resonate far beyond the typical family drama aspects Pixar and Dreamworks animation has been parading for the last ten years (Inside Out and Soul not included) Neither made for adults nor children, Dean Fleisher-Camp and Jenny Slate’s Marcel The Shell With Shoes On rests somewhere in between where the kids will like it, while the parents may love it. I’m no psychic, but I’m expecting (hoping) for Marcel to be a hit. Little did I know until doing some research that it already is one.
A Star Is Born
Marcel The Shell with Shoes On was initially a YouTube video uploaded in 2010. Twelve years and close to 33 million views later Marcel’s become a sensation. Since the video, Marcel has spawned books, coffee mugs, and a feature-length deal with Indi powerhouse A24. The character of Marcel was created by Den Fleisher-Camp’s partner, Jenny Slate. After inadvertently dropping an F-bomb on SNL when she was supposed to say the word “freaking,” Slate’s fate with the famed program was placed in jeopardy. “I think that began to make me feel negative feelings about myself, and it began to taint this experience that I love,” Ms. Slate told reporter Brian Williams on his former NBC Show, Rock Center. To counteract the painful experience, Ms. Slate found comfort by molding a tiny stop motion speaking shell with a personality that’s anything but hollow.
Marcel lives in a house used as an AIRBNB spot owned by Dean (Dean Fleischer-Camp). Marcel’s singular connection to his own kind is through his grandmother Connie (Isabelle Rossellini). However, it wasn’t always just Grandma who shared a genealogical bond with our little hero. Two years before this film’s story begins, Marcel had a family, but at a certain point, they disappeared. The reasons behind their sudden absence is a mystery Marcel aims to resolve. In an attempt to locate his family, Marcel presents himself to the world via the aforesaid YouTube video bringing the film into some meta territory. Thanks to his notoriety, Marcel has the world assist him on his journey from the comfort of his home.
Spending so much time alone, Marcel tries his best to stay optimistic. “do you know why I always smile so much?” Marcel asks Dean, “it’s because it’s worth it.” Marcel’s innocence and knowledge and insight are golden. “Guess what I use as a pin? I use a pin, but it takes the whole family,” Marcel jests to Dean, making light of his dilemma. In his daily observations, Marcel affirms the viewer that it’s the small things in life that matter from the sun shining on your face, to the grass growing from the ground. These are the things we forget to get to appreciate in the middle of our chaotic lives. Without the option to venture into the world due to his small size being a safety hazard, Marcel embraces what he has.
Giving life to the character is Jenny Slate, voicing Marcel. The vocals are picked from Slate’s family. Marcel’s voice stems from Ms. Slate’s grandmothers (yes, plural). Grandma one has an exaggerated accent from multiple countries, making her sound like “a baby from an Asian country.” Grandma two’s raspier voice sounds like a grizzled Jewish aunt from New York. Combining the two gives birth to Marcel’s soft-spoken, innocent vocabulary. When Marcel speaks it’s in a gentle nervous tone. One so soft you must lean in to listen. In a coy play of words, Marcel’s vocal character trait and motivation are wanting to break from his usual social shell into a larger (but not very big) world.
Big Ideas Comes From Small Places
It’s difficult to categorize Marcel. It’s a mockumentary without being mocking and it’s a stop motion animation film that is partially full motion. Marcel doesn’t use its style as a crutch to win over audiences. It’s simply a clever idea generated from love to combat turbulent times. The only thing that’s stop motion in Marcel is the talking shells. Every other object is filmed normally. The animation is painstakingly handcrafted via frame-by-frame capture. The attention to detail is simple yet exquisite. When Marcel steps into a puddle, small footprints are added to each step, or a piece of dirt is left on Marcel’s face when falling on a pile of it.
It’s funny when movies have a smaller budget like Everything, Everywhere, All At Once did; it forces the visual effects departments to be more creative than fixing everything with a computer. What’s made on the cheap is more impressive than the vast multiverses Dr. Strange enters or the dazzling lighting effects Pixar has to offer. Mixing documentary with live-action, Marcel The Shell with Shoes On is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind kid’s film and crowd-pleaser that goes beyond the hollowness of today’s live-action or animated films made for children today.