Little movie with a big heart
In “Marcel the shell with shoes”, Jenny Slate, originally from Milton not only lends her distinct voice to the titular character, a fearless, inch-tall gastropod with googly eyes and orange sneakers, but she also helped create it with her ex-husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp.
The film is a feature-length adaptation of the popular stop-motion shorts and bestselling books Slate co-written with Fleischer-Camp, who directs in addition to starring as a camera-shy documentary maker. Slate, actor, writer, and comedian, draws from within to infuse Marcel with the insight and sensitivity that gives the mini-mollusc a knowledge of the human condition beyond most of us.
Shot in the style of a mockumentary, the story follows Marcel, who lives a quaint, happy existence with his grandmother, Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini), in an Airbnb home in Los Angeles. Marcel rolls around on his trusty steed (a hollowed-out tennis ball) and swings on a zipline made of strands of human hair. He even makes a trumpet out of a piece of curly dry pasta. “I like myself,” Marcel said bluntly in front of the camera.
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But there’s sadness in his big bug eye. The soft-spoken shell wants more from life, including finding the family members he lost when the couple who own the house (Thomas Mann and Rosa Salazar) split up. Dean, the documentarian, is there to guide and record Marcel’s journey to internet stardom, complete with millions of followers and an interview with his hero, ’60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl. But Marcel discovers that being a media sensation isn’t all he’s made out to be. He is looking for a “community”, not an “audience”. This is an idea that escapes many. Marcel may be an inanimate object that comes to life, but in Slate’s hands he is full of realism.
Marcel’s thoughts never get boring either: “Guess what my skis are? Nails of a man”; or “Guess why I smile a lot? Because it’s worth it.” It’s not hard to imagine Marcel and Ted Lasso hanging out.
My only complaint is that even at a measly 90 minutes, the movie feels stretched, which tends to happen when stories rely on gimmicks, even one as adorable as little Marcel. The film mainly works because Fleischer-Camp and Slate are meticulous and inventive in creating a world exclusive to Marcel and Nana Connie. Fleischer-Camp cleverly shoots scenes from scratch to illustrate how huge our world appears to Nana and Marcel. Nana sleeps in a cosmetic puff and bathes in a cup of tea. Marcel is disgusted by the slimy worms residing in his garden. All these details create a rich and lived experience. Marcel’s relationship with Nana Connie, named after Slate’s grandmother, adds another emotional dynamic.
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Despite his flaws, you can’t help but root for Marcel. Slate is a big part of it. She imbues her brave little shell with the sweetest melancholy voice, childish yet deep. Marcel always says something worth hearing. Besides “Marcel,” Slate’s ubiquitous voice work includes the role of Gidget, the bouncy Pomeranian in “The Secret Life of Pets” and Harley Quinn in “The LEGO Batman Movie.” She also lent her tips to the animated films “Zootopia”, “Despicable Me 3” and “The Lorax”.
But Marcel is his OG, and he’s still the best to this day. In the film’s bittersweet finale, it turns out there’s a method to Slate and Fleischer-Camp’s madness. Their star may be small, but the payoff to their story is indeed big.
‘Marcel the shell with shoes’
Evaluation: PG for some suggestive materials and thematic elements
Cast: Jenny Slate, Isabella Rossellini, Rosa Salazar, Thomas Mann, Dean Fleischer-Camp, Lesley Stahl.
Director: Dean FleischerCamp
Writers: Jenny Slate, Dean Fleischer-Camp
Operating time: 90 minutes
Where to watch: In theaters June 24
To note: B+
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Contact Dana Barbuto at [email protected]