October 28, 2022 | CULTURE | By Frances Thyer | Illustration by Rowan Kempen

Opening with a tennis ball slowly rolling through a front hall and bouncing down a staircase, “Marcell the Shell with Shoes On”immediately asks us to reimagine the use of spaces and objects.

The tennis ball, the audience learns, is a vehicle for Marcel, a childlike yet sage shell. The use of the ball is one piece in a collection of charmingly creative innovations from an electric mixer to shake fruit out of a tree to a toothpick lever to open the blinds.

From Marcel’s endearing commentary to the naturalistic soft focus of the camera, the entire film seems to exude charm.

The story begins as Dean, recently separated from his wife, films Marcel after discovering him in his Airbnb. We learn that after the split of the house’s previous owners, Marcel’s family was taken away, leaving Marcel and his grandmother Connie to fend for themselves. Dean, played by the film’s director, Dean Fleischer-Camp, posts videos of Marcel on YouTube, leading to a search and rescue mission for the lost shells spearheaded by Marcel.

With a documentary style to the narrative, the film reads as purely authentic, as though a sweet, soft-spoken five-year-old wise beyond their years was simply handed a microphone. In reality, the intentionality behind the film had been 12 years in the making; Jenny Slate, the voice of Marcel, and Fleischer-Camp conceived of the idea and turned it into a reality within 48 hours, introducing Marcel as a 2010 internet phenomenon. In the years since, Slate and Fleisher-Camp have been married and divorced, with Fleisher-Camp dedicating seven years to planning and realizing “Marcell the Shell with Shoes On”.

Marcel, over the years, has had the opportunity to step out of the social media realm into mainstream film. A blockbuster rendition couldn’t paint the dignified portrait of Marcel that Fleischer-Camp was looking for, whereas a documentary style portrayal had the potential to tell an authentic story of grief. “What was wrong with all those other ideas was they were trying to blow it out. And Marcel does not need to be blown out. He’s already tiny in a blown out, oversize world,” said Fleischer-Camp.

One can only imagine the time necessary to orchestrate stop-motion of the caliber seen in “Marcell the Shell with Shoes On”, not to mention the imagination necessary in its planning. The stop-motion specialist who worked on the film, Kirsten Lepore, has emphasized just how little people understand about the pace of stop-motion animation. “It would take one animator working on a stage an entire day to do a shot that was five, maybe 10 seconds long,” she explained.

Yet, the film continuously commits to bridging the gap between the inanimate and animate, with characters taking the shapes of peanuts, pistachios, and pencils. The set design is also something to be celebrated; from tiny dwellings in houseplants to bottlecap chairs, the film’s atmosphere is pointedly designed to muster childlike wonder and appreciation.

As an A24 family film, “Marcell the Shell with Shoes On”maintains the wholesomeness of the genre while leaning into its nuances. In many ways, the film really does everything; it feels nostalgic yet avant-garde and culturally timely but thematically timeless. Emotions somehow feel bigger with Marcel as the protagonist, as if his small being cannot contain the wealth of emotion that a soul is capable of feeling. Being small and cute, then, becomes secondary to the other complexities of his character.

According to Slate, Marcel does indeed act as a crucible for heavy experiences. “I haven’t always had the easiest time showing feelings that are unfun to have or see. Starting to talk in this tiny little voice seemed to me, even if it felt abstract to other people, a nice way to put everything together.”

“Marcell the Shell with Shoes On” is available to stream on various platforms.

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