Although Marcel wears the shell with shoes on is not the first rodeo of the eponymous hero, it is certainly his biggest adventure yet, with an even greater narrative scope and emotional scope than before. The gregarious 1-inch, one-eyed clam with a childlike voice and tiny sneakers was first introduced to us through YouTube shorts that chronicled his everyday life and his witty, innermost thoughts, tickling our funny bones and warming our hearts. Now co-creator/director Dean Fleischer Camp and co-creator/Marcel voice Jenny Slate expand on the origins and world of the miniature seashell in a live-action/stop-motion-animated hybrid film, gifting us with a life-affirming, super charming and lovely journey. It is a soothing balm unlike any other healthy property.
Marcel (voiced by Slate) lives in a quiet suburban home without much human intervention other than a housekeeper’s weekly appearances. He approaches his encounters with the world with childlike enthusiasm, a thirst for knowledge and an unconventional imagination. He spends his days literally bouncing around the house in a tennis ball, which he uses to traverse the sprawling space. His bed is a slice of bread and he has a ball of fluff named Alan. He has also orchestrated a network of ropes and pulleys to reach high places, see the outside world, and venture into the garden where his grandmother Connie (voiced impeccably by Isabella Rossellini) often works. More of his kind used to live in this humble abode until a mysterious exodus took place, leaving Marcel and Connie stranded and in shock.
Our peppy protagonist’s world changes when documentary filmmaker Dean (Fleischer-Camp) visits the house after a breakup, hoping to throw himself into his work by capturing Marcel and his grandmother in their blissful living space. The young filmmaker is seldom seen and is mostly heard as he and his subject engage in comedic banter. Dean finds an enterprising, goofy spirit to portray in short films that he uploads to the internet, making Marcel an unknowing celebrity sensation. Marcel’s snappy digs in the comments section of his videos are worth the price of admission alone. Moreso uncovers Dean Marcel’s concerns about his nana’s frail, forgetful state and his longing to save and rediscover his community before she leaves him all alone. With the urgency to further their quest, the two set out to find what was missing – friends, family and unfulfilled feelings.
Sentiment is a valuable commodity for an image like this, where laughter and poignancy often mix. Fleischer-Camp, Slate and co-screenwriter Nick Paley (working from a story by Fleischer-Camp, Slate, Paley and Elisabeth Holm) layer tenderness along with highly comedic scenarios and dialogue, without any sense of distressed, sweet or dastardly twee – a true feat for a film brimming with sweetness and charm. The long-running gag involving Marcel raising Dean’s dog who loves to invade Marcel’s turf is hilarious, as are many of the follies he encounters both at home and on the go. The banter of a squirrel loosening itself in the house offers a noisy side. It’s also incredibly moving to see his tenacity, risk-taking, and courage. The filmmakers convey both sad and happy tones so that the third act feels well deserved without becoming sentimental.
Through the tiny prism of this little shell’s tribulations and the documentary that captures those trials, creators Fleisher-Camp and Slate open up rather admirably and vulnerablely to the investigation of their own adultery. It’s refreshingly embraced with bold, raw honesty. They expertly thread the needle through Marcel and Dean’s enlightened discussions about Dean’s recent romantic breakup and how it gently, subtly aligns with Marcel’s desire not to fear the future. The increased fictional reference to her real-life dissolution works to the film’s advantage, adding depth to the diminutive protagonist’s heartbreaking story.
In addition to its well thought out, appropriate narrative, the aesthetic, auditory and animated aspects bring this universe to life. Live-action DP Bianca Cline and stop-motion animation DP Eric Adkins’ cinematography is exuberant and poetically evocative. Academy aspect ratio (1.33:1) and documentary photography reinforce the exchange of intimacy and immediacy between subject and camera. Animators who hone in on Slate and Rossellini’s perfectly matched vocal ranges give Marcel and Connie a wonderful expressiveness, both overt (like when they’re crying or blinking) and nuanced (both in their physicality and the way their move mouths). Composer Disasterpeace’s delicate undertones, along with some carefully curated soundtracks, complement the narrative highs and lows.
Ultimately, Marcel’s clever creators reward our willingness to believe that he and his world are real, while offering an opportunity to see our own world from a different perspective. It seems ironic that a tiny clam skating on dusty coffee tables would love cerebral programming 60 minutes, and using honey to walk on walls can create such a gigantic amount of pathos. But for a character with such a small footprint, his shoes make a remarkably lasting impression.