Soft shell – Winnipeg Free Press

<p>A24</p><p>Marcel takes a spin on a turntable.</p>

This wistful, weird little film probably shouldn’t work.

The Marcel the Shell phenomenon started in 2010 with some short viral YouTube videos. Creators Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate later added a pair of children’s picture books. Now their anthropomorphic creation hits the big screen with this full-length mockumentary.

As the title suggests, Marcel is a shell, with a googly-eyed face, a pair of sneakers and a soft, wispy voice (supplied by Slate, the writer and comedian known for Obvious Child).

The original appeal of Marcel rested in his offhand observations and upbeat attitude as he navigated a big world from an inch-high perspective. Expanding that light, loose premise to 90 minutes might seem risky, but Marcel is more than ready for his feature debut. His utterly endearing story succeeds not by leaving behind its small-scale origins but by embracing them.


Marcel takes a spin on a turntable.

Director Fleischer-Camp, who co-scripted with Slate, Elisabeth Holm and Nick Paley, plays a version of himself as Dean, who moves into a Los Angeles Airbnb and starts filming the home’s other inhabitants, Marcel and his beloved grandmother, Nanna Connie (voiced by the wonderful Isabella Rossellini).

Their small community of fellow shells has disappeared — we learn more about that later — leaving the pair to get on with things as best they can.

Utilizing jam-jar lids and bits of lint and string, Marcel and his Nanna can do a lot with a little. This idea also applies to the film’s look, which is an unpretentious, low-fi combo of live action and stop-motion animation.

Marcel sings campfire songs and skates on a glass-topped coffee table to keep his spirits up, while Nanna has been trying her hand (does she have hands?) at gardening.

But Nanna is starting to falter a little, and Marcel, who’s already lost so much, seems paralyzed by his fear of losing her, too.

<p>A24</p><p>Nanna (Isabella Rossellini) and Marcel (Jenny Slate) garden to keep their spirits up.</p>


Nanna (Isabella Rossellini) and Marcel (Jenny Slate) garden to keep their spirits up.

Marcel the Shell is both big and little, then. Nothing much happens in this exquisitely tender little film: it retains the gently aimless vibe of the original shorts. But in another way, everything happens — love and loss and change, and a modest but valiant attempt to live a meaningful life.

The storyline is pretty simple. When Marcel’s YouTube videos go viral, he is characteristically optimistic: “There’s all these people, and you’re all looking at the same things and doing the same things, and it’s beautiful,” he enthuses.

He even hopes his new fans might help him find his lost family, but all they do is show up at his house and take selfies. “They’re not a community,” he concludes sadly. “They’re an audience.”

The next possibility involves 60 Minutes, which the shells watch religiously every Sunday. “We just call it ‘the show.’ That’s how much we like it,” Marcel tells us. They especially love Lesley Stahl, who makes a cameo here. “She blows cases wide open, and she’s got class,” Marcel says.

There’s also Dean and Marcel’s growing rapport, which raises some questions about the relationship between documentarian and subject.

<p>A24</p><p>Lesley Stahl of 60 Minute makes a cameo in Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.</p>


Lesley Stahl of 60 Minute makes a cameo in Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.

Dean is dealing with a recent breakup, and we get a sense that he’s asking Marcel about his feelings as a way of avoiding his own. “Maybe you should connect with someone and not just make videos about them,” Marcel suggests.

There’s something very sweet about Marcel. With his unpredictable mix of wisdom and naiveté, he reaches Paddington Bear levels of wholesomeness, which is saying something.

But the film isn’t cloying, partly because it’s funny but mostly because it rides a wave of sweetly sad melancholy. This is one of those delicate works that makes you feel hopeful and happy while also keeping you perpetually on the verge of tears.

Marcel the Shell might look like an all-ages film, and it will work for kids who are OK with quirky, quiet, slow-paced fare. But it speaks also to grownups, with lovely, low-key observations on loneliness, aging and death.

This stealth seriousness might also explain why Slate and Fleischer-Camp have waited so long to make the move to a bigger project. The film is cleverly disguised pandemic art. Marcel and Nanna, rattling around an almost empty house, are thrown back on each other. They experience practical hardships and the loss of their community, but they also find consolation in everyday pleasures and small rituals.

In the end, this is a story about the need for connection, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

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Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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