“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is a little whimsical work packed with irresistible charm and cuteness. Although it took some time for me to accept its rather outrageous story premise, I eventually accepted that anyway as having enough amusement and entertainment, and I also came to adore its titular hero who becomes more endearing for his unadorned innocence and curiosity.
The film takes a mockumentary approach to its story and characters, so we mostly observe its story and characters via the camera of a documentary filmmaker named Dean (Dean Fleisher-Camp). Not long after he got separated from his wife, Dean came to stay in one suburban house via the Airbnb service, and that was how he came to discover a one-inch-tall talking shell named Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate). With the willing cooperation from Marcel and his grandmother Nana Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini), Dean and his camera have followed the daily routine of Marcel and Nana Connie, and we accordingly get a series of small humorous moments including the one showing how Marcel can move from the upstairs to the downstairs despite his physical limits.
Although he has only one eye and two legs besides his tiny mouth, Marcel is pretty active and resourceful in many of his daily activities. While his grandmother is usually occupied with growing vegetables outside, he does a number of different activities including getting some fruits from a tree outside the house, and you will be surely amused by how he can get the fruits via his own simple but clever method.
Marcel and his grandmother once had a big family some years ago, but, as shown from a flashback scene, they got separated from other family members because of some bad incident between the former resident of the house and her ex-boyfriend. As he becomes more aware of the world outside his house via his interactions with Dean, Marcel really wants to know where the hell his missing family members are at present, and Dean is willing to help him via posting his several video clips of Marcel on YouTube.
The responses to Dean’s video clips are not so impressive during the first several days, but, what do you know, they later come to draw lots attention on the Internet, and Marcel soon finds himself becoming a very popular online celebrity. Everyone is quite interested in getting to know more about him, and he is even approached by Lesley Stahl, who is quite interested in interviewing him for “60 minutes”.
Meanwhile, Marcel and Dean continue to try to get any information about where Marcel’s missing family members are now, but there is still not much clue on that, and then they get an unexpected trouble. Because of Marcel’s considerable popularity in public, many people come to their house just because of curiosity, and, not so surprisingly, a very unpleasant incident soon happens to Marcel and Dean’s dismay.
The mood accordingly becomes a little more serious than usual, but the movie still maintains its lightweight deadpan tone even at that point. When Stahl herself and her TV crew finally arrive, Marcel becomes quite nervous and conflicted for understandable personal reasons, but he is eventually motivated more by his grandmother, and we get some good laugh as observing how Stahl and her TV crew are really serious about interviewing Marcel.
I must point out that the screenplay by director Dean Fleisher-Camp and his co-writers/co-producers Jenny Slate, and Nick Paley, which is developed from the story they wrote along with Elisabeth Holm, is basically a one-joke comedy, but the movie fills its rather thin story and characters with lots of charm and personality. Although our titular hero looks quite simple on the surface, he comes to express more than his modest cuteness, and his interactions with his grandmother are accompanied with enough gravitas and poignancy to engage us. As the heart and soul of the story, Jenny Slate, who is incidentally Fleisher-Camp’s ex-wife, and Isabella Rossellini generate an effortless synergy between their lovely voice performances, which are the main reason why we can accept their characters’ fantastic existence without much problem.
Besides humbly holding the ground for the two little main characters of his film as required, Fleisher-Camp also did a skillful job of mixing animation and live-action on the screen. As he and other performers in the screen play their respective characters as straight as possible, the animation part of the screen is seamlessly incorporated into the screen, and you will be surprised how much the movie actually depends on animation. As a matter of fact, animation figures in more than 75% of the film, and that makes the movie eligible for Best Animated Feature Oscar in next year (It has already received the Best Animated Feature awards from the New York Film Critics Award and the National Board of Review, by the way).
Overall, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is a cute and likable piece of work which has enough style and personality to support its rather thin narrative, and Fleisher-Camp, who previously made several short films including three ones featuring Marcell, did an admirable feature debut here on the whole. Although I am not so enthusiastic compared to many other critics and reviewers, I recognize and appreciate its undeniable charm and colorfulness nonetheless, and I think it will grow more on me before I revisit it someday.
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