Cuteness and whimsy carry SNL alum's small Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
For some Saturday Night Live cast members, their time on the show is the highlight of their careers. For others, a long run on SNL pushes them into comedy superstardom. But for a select few like Jenny Slate, who was there for just two seasons, their time on show is a mere footnote, obscured by the success they’ve had once they were allowed to spread their wings elsewhere.
Slate had not hurt for work since leaving SNL in 2010, scoring a slew of TV parts and starring in the acclaimed 2014 film Obvious Child. She’s also become a go-to voice actor for Disney and others, a career she started in 2010 viral video, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. She’s now come full circle, as she and co-creator Dean Fleischer-Camp have expanded the short stop-motion videos they did into a full-fledged feature film.
But even though the screen is bigger, the story remains as small and whimsical as ever. Marcel (Slate) is, as the title would suggest, a one-inch tall, one-eyed shell who wears shoes. He lives in a house with his grandmother, Connie (Isabella Rossellini), one that used to be occupied by a human couple but is now rented out as an Airbnb. The house’s latest tenant is a documentary filmmaker (Fleischer-Camp) who becomes fascinated by Marcel and records him going about his life.
There’s little more to the plot than that, although the idea that the rest of Marcel’s family was accidentally taken when the former owner moved out comes into play. A search for the family winds up involving a bunch of would-be TikTok influencers and, somehow, 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl, but the film rarely steps outside of the house in which it started, keeping their world contained.
What makes the humor of the film work is that there’s no struggle with trying to figure out how a shell has come alive or anything like that. Marcel merely exists and that’s good enough for Dean and everyone else with whom Marcel comes into contact in the film. And so when Marcel shows Dean the intricacies of his life, from using honey on his feet to climb walls to jury-rigging a mixer to help shake nuts off a nearby tree, we can just enjoy the quirks without thinking about it too hard.
Of course, Marcel living in a human-sized world makes up a lot of the fun of the film. In addition to the aforementioned hacks Marcel has devised, other adaptations are a delight to witness, like using a bottle cap to drink water or hopping from key to key on a computer keyboard. The miniature nature of Marcel’s world comes close to cuteness overload, but the filmmakers never overplay their hand.
The film being released by indie studio A24 should give viewers a good indication of the intended audience. While the PG-rated film is certainly family-friendly, it never panders or dumbs down its content. The stop-motion animation is deceptively simple, and stands out because it takes place in a recognizably human setting, making each movement all the more precious.
Slate’s voice work as Marcel is most of the reason why the character is so lovable. With a sound that makes it seem like she’s holding her breath with every line, she makes Marcel into a completely believable being, stripping away any artifice. Fleischer-Camp is the straight man as the mostly-disembodied voice of the filmmaker, but he plays an important part in giving legitimacy to Marcel, and his earnestness is never in doubt.
It was easy to be skeptical of how a character that previously existed in short YouTube videos could carry a whole film, but the performance of Slate, the excellent animation, and the uncynical storytelling makes Marcel the Shell with Shoes On the perfect balm in a summer dominated by blockbusters.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is now playing in select theaters.