"Marcel the Shell with Shoes On" is a Poignant Summertime Surprise; Cinematography by Bianca Cline
June 22, 2022

written by Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

One might approach Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, a feature-length adaptation (in limited release June 24) of a handful of popular videos and a subsequent book from over a decade ago, a bit warily. What worked so well in small format—Jenny Slate’s sweetly rasping voice as the titular stop-motion creature, surrounded by an olio of found objects put to inventive new use—could become cloying when stretched out to 90 minutes. And anyway, hasn’t Marcel’s era passed? Gone are the days when bits of whimsy were the bright side of the Internet’s main currency. Imagine something so quaint going viral in 2022!

Perhaps keen to those cultural shifts, Slate and director Dean Fleischer Camp (who did the original Marcel videos) have balanced their creation’s adorable patter with dollops of sadness and melancholy. There is a dull existential ache running throughout the film; Marcel’s smallness in the face of a vast and boggling world becomes a neat stand-in for our own. It’s a surprisingly emotional journey, this movie about a shell who wears sneakers.

Maybe the film’s greatest feat is that it courts tweeness and yet never succumbs to it. On paper there is much to roll your eyes about: the film is a mockumentary of sorts that features Isabella Rossellini as a kindly grandma shell and 60 Minutes anchor Lesley Stahl as the film’s delivering hero. The film’s heap of personality tics places it adjacent to Wes Anderson and softer Spike Jonze (mostly Where the Wild Things Are), making playful wonder of the everyday in a way that would seem blinkered, smarmily optimistic were it not for the tinges of darkness that Slate, Camp, and co-writer Nick Paley weave into the story.

I mention the work of Anderson and Jonze, but curiously enough the film I really kept thinking about while watching Marcel was David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. Like Lowery’s film, Marcel is largely set in one house, wandering its rooms and considering the enormity of all the time rushing along inside and outside of it. The films have a vaguely similar aesthetic. Camp and cinematographer Bianca Cline have created dreamlike, sun-dappled pictures that nonetheless ping with the clarity of real life. That’s a tricky calibration, one that Camp manages even when his film goes lilting up into high sentiment—all while deftly handling the painstaking difficulties of blending stop-motion animation with regular photography. It’s a major feature debut for the director, a vivid and intricate statement of idiosyncratic ability.

It’s quite an accomplishment for Slate, too. As Marcel—who, in the film, is hoping to find the community he lost when they were carted off somewhere in a suitcase by accident—Slate is chipper and peppery, lively and winsome and spiky and mordant. A few years ago, I tried to make the case that another such voice performance should get attention and accolades the way on-camera work does, to no avail. But maybe we can try again with Slate, who gives such particular, appealing spirit to the film. She cracks jokes equally as well as she murmurs with delicate philosophical insight. Her performance ably complements—and further elevates—a film that is sensitively tuned into the creak and whisper of life.

That all may make Marcel sound unnecessarily heavy. It isn’t, really. This is a thinking-child’s film, I guess you could call it. Kind and silly, but also aimed at those wee ponderers and loners who can sense something unseen whirring in the air of a sunny day just as readily as they see, as Marcel does, a hot dog bun’s utility as a tiny sofa. That kind of film is as valuable as any of the big, loud, colorful adventures that are regularly rolled out to entertain kids. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On both gets on little ones’ level and lifts them up to give them a better view out the window, presenting a world of thought and feeling to go along with the giggles and “aw”s of the film’s endearing landscape. Maybe quirky earnestness is back—so long as it’s done with as much care and insight as this rather marvelous curio.

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