‘MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON’
Rated PG. At AMC Boston Common and Landmark Kendall Square Cinema.
Marcel Proust had his memory-infused madeleines. Marcel Marceau had his invisible dog and a lifetime of pantomime. But it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a more beguiling Marcel than the inch-tall philosopher and gentle, inspiring wiseacre at the center of “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.”
I have adored Marcel ever since the stop-motion animation star, created by Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate, appeared in a short posted on YouTube in 2010. Then came a sequel, then another. And two picture books. And now, the feature distributed by A24, which has turned out wonderfully and, like Marcel, is just the right size.
At an Airbnb rental home somewhere in Los Angeles, documentary filmmaker Dean, played by Fleischer-Camp, discovers Marcel and Marcel’s grandmother, Nana Connie, living there, too. They are hardy Lilliputians, cleverly adapting to and in most ways improving on their human-scale environment.
Nana Connie and Marcel enjoy time in the garden. (A24)
Marcel sleeps in his “breadroom,” which is a bedroom with a bed made out of two slices of bread. Nana Connie tends a huge garden, pops popcorn kernels with a magnifying glass and, as the narrative proceeds, copes with forgetfulness and Alzheimer’s-like symptoms.
Not long ago Marcel and Connie were surrounded by family and friends, and as Marcel tells us early on it takes 20 shells to make a functioning community. This one’s down to two. With the help of filmmaker Dean, Marcel sets out on a quest to find out what happened to that community, and how it might once again give Marcel what he misses so badly.
The tone and texture of the film itself are light, deft and deadpan. There’s also a plaintive emotional pull to Marcel’s circumstances, marked as they are by the loss he has experienced and the loss he’s afraid of enduring with his ailing grandmother. This is rarely forced or hammered into predictable dramatic beats, or action sequences, though there’s plenty of action suggesting ziplining, or rapid, unpredictable commutes around the house (Marcel travels by tennis ball).
These shells are utterly human, with habits and tastes informed by fragments of popular culture as seen through childlike eyes. Nana Connie and Marcel watch “60 Minutes” religiously; they call it “the show,” and they admire Lesley Stahl (who takes a major role in the film) because she’s “fearless” as well as “classy.”
Slate and Fleischer-Camp were married for a time, in the wake of their first “Marcel” collaborations. (The feature film’s storyline is credited to them, and to Elisabeth Holm and Nick Paley.) The interactions between Marcel and Dean play out like comfortable old friends who care enough about each other to call each other on their issues. In Marcel, we see a wealth of enviable qualities: resolve, wit, kindness and a curiosity about the world. It’s best not to expect a life-changing experience from “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.” But its tenderness, along with its best jokes, are most welcome right about now.
— Tribune News Service