Being small is difficult. Everything is out of reach, literally. It’s hard to see over bigger people and things. And forget being included in important conversations! In the quirky A24 movie Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, writer-director Dean Fleischer-Camp remembers what it’s like to be small better than most big people do. But as he, co-writers Elisabeth Holm and Nick Paley, and collaborator Jenny Slate remind the audience about childhood experiences, they bring in a sense of humor and a perspective that can only come from living in the big wide world.
Marcel (Jenny Slate), a 1-inch-tall shell with shoes and a face, may be a child. (He sounds like one, but his age is never revealed, and shells “don’t do the clock like you do,” as Marcel explains at one point.) He does live with his grandma Connie (Isabella Rossellini), a warmhearted gardener who came to the house from the garage. (Her faraway origins are meant to explain her accent.) They live on foraged raisins and droplets of water from a leaky bathroom faucet, and they bring patience and grace to the many challenges that come with their tiny stature. Their favorite show is 60 Minutes, which they watch on a TV in a neighboring house while sitting on a couch made out of a hoagie roll.
Many “changings of the trees” ago, Connie and Marcel were part of a thriving community of pocket-sized individuals that also included Marcel’s mom, Catherine (Sarah Thyre), and dad, Mario (Andy Richter), as well as pretzels, pieces of cereal, pistachio shells, and a tampon with the face of a ghost. But most of the group was scooped up and carried away in a suitcase when the man and woman who used to live in their house argued, then left. In the wake of this disaster, Marcel and Connie had to learn to survive on their own. They did so through the ingenious use of tennis balls, electric mixers, and other adaptive gadgets.
Now the house is a “computer hotel,” as Marcel calls Airbnb. A new man lives there, named Dean (Fleischer-Camp, who also directed the viral YouTube videos that first brought Marcel to the world in 2010). Unlike most of the temporary residents, Dean actually notices Marcel and Connie, and he persuades them to star in a documentary about their lives — a project Marcel explains to Connie as “a movie where nobody has any lines, and nobody knows what it’s about while they’re making it.” Dean is staying in the house because he and his wife recently separated, and he doesn’t really want to talk about it. This annoys Marcel, who astutely notes that Dean might be happier if he “took the time to connect with people and not just make videos about it.”
Saying casually profound things in a charmingly direct way is kind of Marcel’s thing. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On gets a remarkable amount of mileage out of Marcel making simple, off-kilter observations about the people and things around him. Considering that the original Marcel videos clocked in at less than 12 minutes total, it’s a testament to the script’s strengths that the feature-length version of his schtick never gets old. (The film is also relatively slight, at 89 minutes long, but still.) The dramatic arc of this magical-realist comedy is gentle: Dean’s YouTube videos about Marcel bring them viral fame, which excites and frightens them both. The jokes are tender and amiable as well.
Marcel does have his moments of melancholy. One of the most quietly devastating moments in the film comes when Dean is interviewing Marcel about losing his family, and Marcel describes how the sun shines a little brighter the day after something terrible happens. Marcel recalls thinking, “If I were somebody else, I would really be enjoying this,” looking out at a beautiful summer morning — a thought that’s occurred to many people, big and small, who are immersed in depression and/or grief. Typical of the film’s skewed, sweet sense of humor, Marcel marks a loss with an a cappella version of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” by the Eagles, which Slate sings in a reedy, childlike voice that’s surprisingly affecting.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On has the soothing, reassuring quality of Studio Ghibli’s mildest output, dealing with death and responsibility in a manner that recalls Hayao Miyazaki’s all-time classic My Neighbor Totoro. Marcel and Dean learn about being brave and taking chances, and how big life changes may be scary, but they give us the opportunity to grow as well. These are all things children need to learn and adults need to be reminded of every once in a while. The film is also doing its part to educate future generations about the majesty of 60 Minutes reporter Lesley Stahl, who’s good-natured enough to show up for a small cameo. Marcel does seem to bring that out in people.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On debuts in theaters on June 24.