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One of the harsher lessons of “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” an otherwise winsome bit of family-friendly whimsy, is the high price of internet stardom. Marcel — a garrulous 1-inch-tall seashell with one googly eye, two Creamsicle-colored sneakers and the burbling voice of the actor-comedian Jenny Slate — learns this firsthand when a few short videos about his life go unexpectedly viral, earning him the adoration of a less-than-adorable fan base. As he scrolls through inane YouTube comments (“‘So cute’ … ugh!”) and watches fame seekers take selfies outside his window, Marcel longs for his days of obscurity, when he and his family could dwell at a relatively peaceful remove from the human world.
It’s a shrewd bit of preemptive self-critique on the part of the filmmakers (Dean Fleischer Camp directed the movie and co-wrote the script with Slate and Nick Paley), who are perhaps keenly aware that Marcel, cute as a button and nearly as small, could trigger your gag reflex if left unchecked. But it’s also a sly meta-joke, since internet fame is, of course, the reason this calculated charmer of a movie exists in the first place. Marcel first came to fame in 2010, anchoring a series of stop-motion animated shorts, each one touching lightly on the challenges of being a very tiny creature in very large human-made environs. (Those are the same videos we see being uploaded to YouTube here.)
Watching the shorts, you learn almost nothing about Marcel’s background or the mystery of how he came to walk, talk, live and breathe, which is probably for the best. You do learn, however, that he uses a raisin as a beanbag chair and a Dorito as a hang glider. He’s proud but not arrogant, scattered but thoughtful, a tireless talker and a good listener; he’s aware of his unique obstacles in life but happily allergic to self-pity. The shorts were charming, if also as appreciably modest and small-scaled as Marcel himself.
A feature-length expansion posed any number of challenges, including the possibility that Marcel, however irresistible he might be in four-minute chunks, might overstay his welcome at 90. But Camp and Slate have made shrewd choices all around, starting with their commitment to stop-motion animation, seamlessly integrated here with live-action imagery, often in the same shot. (While it retains its handcrafted feel, the animation is definitely slicker; Marcel’s conch-shell body, with its smooth surface and croissant swirls, catches the light beautifully.) The filmmakers have also preserved the comic wonderment of Marcel’s shell-out-of-water existence and devised several ingenious life hacks for him, the cleverest of which are an electric-mixer-powered tree shaker (he eats a lot of fruit) and a moving vehicle fashioned from a hollow tennis ball.
Crucially, if a little more obviously, they’ve also given Marcel a motivational backstory — one that explains why he lives alone with his beloved grandmother, Nana Connie (marvelously voiced by Isabella Rossellini), in a comfy house turned popular Airbnb rental. While most guests take little notice of the sentient shells in their midst, one rare exception is a documentary filmmaker named Dean (Camp, playing himself in a mostly off-screen role), who moves in for an extended stay and soon after begins filming his new friends and their singular way of life. In between shots of Connie tending her garden and Marcel watching his favorite show (“60 Minutes”) on a comfy hot-dog-bun chair, a story about loss and separation quietly coalesces in the background.
Like those early shorts, then, “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” is essentially a mockumentary, though one with a far more complex visual scheme and a more ambitious tonal range. The filmmakers are clearly having fun playing around on a broader canvas, using abrupt cuts to heighten the comedy (Camp and Paley edited), even as they try out poetic interludes and pensive narration. The filmmaking teems with clever tricks of perspective and other low-key visual pleasures, from the dreamlike blurred edges and lightly muted colors of Bianca Cline’s photography to the animated spiders skulking about at the edges of the story. You can tell a lot about Marcel from the simple, lovely sequence of his tennis-ball car bouncing down a flight of stairs and then barreling, with blind-faith enthusiasm, toward its destination.
There’s another way to read that scene, of course: A little cuteness goes a long way. But Marcel has many saving graces. He barfs on his first car ride, and it’s somehow endearing rather than repellent. He’s refreshingly devoid of narcissism; he’s interested in himself, to be sure, but also in everything and everyone around him. That especially includes Nana Connie, whose declining health proves a continual source of worry and generates the story’s sweetest emotions. Connie may not be an internet celebrity (or a movie star) on par with her grandson, but to see her toddling across a table, her fragile shell tightly bandaged — and to hear Rossellini deliver selfless words of love and encouragement in her rich, velvety contralto — is to witness the film’s secret weapon in action.
Connie beautifully underscores the movie’s parting message, namely that all creatures great and small must contend with the tough reality of loss and change. That’s true of the on-screen Dean, whose recent separation from his wife (a bittersweet nod to Camp and Slate’s own former marriage) is what sets this story’s chain of events in motion. But “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” is far from a downer, and it doesn’t take long for its busy narrative machinery kicks in; suffice to say that Marcel’s love for “60 Minutes” isn’t exactly a random slice-of-life detail. It’s hard not to smile at what happens next, especially when Lesley Stahl sweeps regally into view, though it’s hard to feel terribly surprised by any of it, either. Internet fame may be a drag, but as Marcel the Shell himself knows, celebrity certainly has its uses.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.