Director: Dean Fleischer Camp
Stars: Jenny Slate, Dean Fleischer Camp, Isabella Rossellini
Expanded on from a series of mockumentary-style stop motion shorts uploaded onto YouTube by the then-married Dean Fleischer Camp and Jenny Slate, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On arrives on UK shores well over a year after its first appearance stateside, having garnered a wealth of approval in that time. Yet its exact target audience seems a puzzle to both Universal Studios and the multiplexes showing it. A (largely) animated, PG-rated film hitting cinemas in time for half-term, the trailers preceding Marcel mainly tilted toward forthcoming National Theatre Live events as opposed to the roster of upcoming Disney adventures or that Super Mario Bros. movie. As the lights went down it prompted in me the question, who is this movie for?
90 minutes later I had my answer.
For those who haven’t yet been captured by the cutesy allure, Marcel is a one-inch tall shell with shoes and a singular eye. Voiced by the dexterously talented and quick-witted Jenny Slate, Marcel is videoed by the largely unseen Dean (Fleischer Camp himself), who appears to have happened upon this magical creature quite by accident and decided to make him the focus of his short-form documentaries. There are three shorts from circa a decade ago that I’d urge you to catch whenever you have a sum-total of 11 minutes spare in your life. You’ll be all the better for it.
These vignettes feature rapid fire question-and-answer sessions between the two, or offer insights into Slate’s canny ability at improv. They are similar in form and tone to Aardman’s old Creature Comforts shorts, albeit with a single – and singularly charismatic – star. As adorable as these video greetings cards are, the question of how that could be stretched to feature length hung over this project. The answer, joyfully, is with effortless ease.
As one would have hoped, the scenario surrounding Marcel has been expanded upon. The human-scaled house he lives in has been turned into an AirBnB (or “computer home” as Marcel understands it), and it is in this capacity that Dean has entered the picture, having recently split from his girlfriend. Marcel’s ‘community’ (referenced but never seen in the earlier shorts) have also been abruptly rehomed, leaving just Marcel and his previously unseen grandmother Nana Connie (Isabella Rossilini) to fend for themselves. While Marcel’s resourcefulness at using household objects to facilitate their needs is never short of delightful, a sense of sadness and loss permeates the picture; something that bonds Dean to his new diminutive friend.
In a move that the Scream movies would undeniably refer to as ‘meta’, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On sees Dean’s earlier shorts blow-up online, turning their hero into a viral sensation. Awed by this exposure, Marcel suggests that they use this new resource to track down his missing family (inadvertently moved to an unknown location by a previous tenant). It’s a fun mechanism to draw a simple yet effective narrative arc out of the existing material. A number of earlier jokes and lines are recycled from the shorts for this feature-length excursion, but the wealth of new material more than makes up for this mining of past highs. Underpinning it all – and prodding lightly at the film’s sense of melancholia – Disasterpeace’s score completes the sense of a warm, cinematic hug unfurling before the viewer.
In-keeping with the mock-doc angle and the self-reflexive use of the existing shorts to launch a larger real-world adventure, Marcel ropes the crew of US TV staple 60 Minutes into its ever expanding reach. Marcel and Nanna Connie are big fans. This creates a through-line to the existing notion of attachment to seen media, and the film makes breezy enquiries into how any and all of us take warmth and inspiration from the tales of others. How we utilities our stories and the stories of others to build connections. There’s also a bittersweet coming-of-age adventure in here. Marcel’s first car journey is a riot, but underpinning it is the dwarfing sense of awe and intimidation that comes from suddenly understanding the vastness of the world, its complexities.
It’s hard not to be taken in by such effective, snappy and unapologetically cute material. As a feature Marcel sustains itself admirably while Fleischer Camp – a reluctant star here – takes the opportunity to add in a few new tricks to the visual scale of his handsome mix of live action and stop motion. The melancholy keeps things from tipping irreversibly into the saccharine. There’s a real chance that, for hipsters, film nuts, millennials and a newly exposed generation of youngsters, this could come to be held as dearly and as formative an experience as Pixar’s first Toy Story. It certainly generates a similar vibe of playful wonder and emotional maturity.
So who is it for? Just that substrata of society listed above? No. I watched this thing with a beaming smile from ear to ear. With it’s slapstick humour, charismatic back-and-forth and a well of broadly played emotional beats, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is for absolutely everyone.