Let it be said that three and a half minutes was just the right length for a “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” video — and all it took for Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate to launch one of the internet’s unlikeliest viral phenoms back in 2010. Picture books and additional shorts soon followed, allowing the duo to cash in on some of that success. But they didn’t “sell out” (unlike, say, Looney Tunes when they made “Space Jam”), preserving the original charm of their creation every step of the way, which is why their new 90-minute feature — a comedic mock documentary about Marcel that treats the character and his concerns in all sincerity — never wears out its welcome.
As of this writing, that first short has 31,882,527 views, and yet for many, the movie will be their introduction to Marcel (pronouns “he/him/his”): a tiny animated seashell with one googly eye and a pair of pink plastic doll shoes, who serves as a vessel for actor, standup and “Saturday Night Live” veteran Slate’s cute, quavering little-boy impression. Marcel is a voice Slate does, one that sounds like the kid at the grown-ups’ table, starved for attention and hesitantly trying to interject non sequiturs into a more serious conversation (e.g., “Guess what my skis are. Toenails from a man”). Except that here, Marcel has the spotlight, and a bit of an upgrade, animation-wise, thanks to unlikely partner the Chiodo Brothers — responsible for “Killer Klowns From Outer Space,” the stop-motion Large Marge sequence in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and the puppetry on “Team America: World Police.”
The movie’s super-loose conceit imagines that director Fleischer-Camp (Dean here, and Slate’s partner in real life) has landed at an Airbnb somewhere in Los Angeles, and there he discovers Marcel and his grandmother Nana Connie (a slightly larger shell voiced by Isabella Rossellini) and proceeds to film them. That’s all the explanation we get. Attempting to untangle any of the greater ontological questions about Marcel’s existence would only get in the way of the joke, which instead concentrates on how small and self-sufficient this curious little creature can be.
Marcel and Connie were once part of a much larger community of random objects — like old peanuts, pretzels and assorted Chex Mix ingredients — that might have fallen into the folds of the couch and taken on a life of their own. Marcel misses the others, especially members of his immediate shell family, who disappeared when the couple that owns the house (played by Thomas Mann and Rosa Salazar) split up. Things were pretty tense when these two humans were together, but now that they’re gone, Marcel has the run of the place, rolling around in his “car” (a hollow tennis ball) and amusing himself with odd games (like trying to launch an orange at a target by jumping on the opposite end of a spoon).
Some audiences will have no patience for Marcel and his musings, though a great many will enjoy how inventive Fleischer-Camp and Slate have been about imagining a house from the perspective of its smallest inhabitant (not counting the felt spiders who sometimes make cameos, or the piece of lint Marcel treats as a pet). When he wants to reach a high shelf, Marcel shuffles his little shoes through honey and climbs the walls, leaving sticky tracks for the housekeeper to clean up. When he’s feeling musical, he can blow into a piece of dried pasta.
As Connie, Rossellini is a welcome addition to Marcel’s world, the playful actor’s contributions a natural extension of her daffy “Green Porno” shorts, in which she dresses up in giant bug costumes and schools us on the mating habits of insects. To a degree, Marcel and Connie’s behavior suggests the private worlds of animals abandoned by their owners during the workday or presumed-inanimate objects, as presented in hit toons “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Toy Story,” though their behavior is more recognizably human. (Most of the dialogue was improvised, then animated, which suggests an approach more akin to Aardman’s Oscar-winning “Creature Comforts.”)
Turns out, the shells are big fans of “60 Minutes” — it’s their favorite show — and can hardly believe it when Lesley Stahl contacts Dean to arrange an interview. Marcel hesitantly agrees, worried that so much commotion could be bad for Connie (who may not be far from seashell heaven), and this already self-aware faux doc takes on an even more meta dimension. And then, right around the 60-minute mark, something happens that gives the till-now quite light proceedings an unexpected emotional resonance.
Keep in mind, these characters are just about as rudimentary as it gets in animation: one eye, no limbs, a teeny CG mouth, and that’s it. So it’s no small feat that Slate and Rossellini are able to make us feel for them. And yet, feel for them we do, which is a kind of statement unto itself: By playing on the clichés of “reality” and nonfiction filmmaking — including but not limited to low-saturation, Instagram-filtered lensing and a light, sinus-tickling score — they’re able to elicit many of the same reactions you’d expect from a live-action drama. Are we so easily manipulated that a pair of glorified Pet Rocks can have such an effect on us? Frankly, yes. Pack a hankie. But don’t miss this strange, special little film.
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