We could approach Marcel the shod shell, a feature-length adaptation (on a limited release June 24) of a handful of popular videos and a subsequent book from over a decade ago, a bit wary. What worked so well in small format—Jenny SlateThe titular stop-motion creature’s gently raspy voice, surrounded by an olio of found objects put to inventive new use, could become sickening as it stretches for 90 minutes. And then, isn’t Marcel’s era over? Gone are the days when fantasies were the silver lining of the main internet currency. Imagine something so quaint going viral in 2022!
Perhaps eager for these cultural shifts, Slate and the director Dean FleischerCamp (who made Marcel’s original videos) balanced the adorable crackle of their creation with dollops of sadness and melancholy. There’s a dull existential pain that runs throughout the film; Marcel’s smallness in the face of a vast and breathtaking world becomes a perfect substitute for ours. It’s a surprisingly moving journey, this movie about a sneaker-wearing shell.
Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is that it woos tween without ever succumbing to it. On paper, it’s eye-rolling: the film is a kind of mockumentary that presents Isabelle Rossellini like a nice grandmother’s shell and 60 minutes anchor Lesley Stahl as the film’s delivery hero. The film’s heap of personality tics put it next to Wes Anderson and softer Spike Jonze (most where the wild things are), doing playful everyday wonders in a way that would seem blind, slightly optimistic were it not for the hues of darkness that Slate, Fleischer-Camp and co-author Nick Paley weave into the story.
I mention the work of Anderson and Jonze, but oddly enough the movie I kept thinking about while watching marcel has been David Basseyit is A ghost story. Like Lowery’s movie, marcel largely takes place in a house, wandering its rooms and considering the enormity of all the time rushing in and out of it. The films have a vaguely similar aesthetic. Fleischer-Camp and director of photography Bianca Cline have created dreamlike, sun-dappled images that nevertheless ring with real-life clarity. It’s a delicate calibration, one Fleischer-Camp manages even when his film goes up in high sentiment, while deftly handling the laborious difficulties of mixing stop-motion animation with regular photography. It’s a major feature debut for the director, a vivid and complex statement of idiosyncratic ability.
It’s also quite a feat for Slate. As Marcel – who in the film hopes to reunite with the community he lost when they were transported somewhere in a suitcase by accident – Slate is crisp and peppery, lively and seductive, pungent and biting. A few years ago I tried to argue that another such vocal performance should command attention and praise like on-camera work does, to no avail. But maybe we can try again with Slate, which gives the film such a special and appealing life. She cracks jokes as well as whispers with delicate philosophical insight. Her performance deftly complements — and further elevates — a film that’s sensitive to the world’s creak and whisper.
What all can do marcel an unnecessarily heavy sound. That’s not really the case. It’s a thinking kid’s movie, I guess you could call it. Kind and silly, but also for little meditators and loners who can see, as Marcel does, the usefulness of a hot dog bun as a little couch, just as they can sense something invisible, whirring in the air on a sunny day. It’s as valuable as any of the big, loud, colorful adventures that are regularly rolled out to entertain children. Marcel the shod shell both place themselves at toddler level and elevate them for a better view out the window, presenting a world of thoughts and feelings to accompany the laughs and “aws” of the film’s endearing scenery. Perhaps the quirky seriousness is back, as long as it’s done with as much care and insight as this rather wondrous curiosity.
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