It’s boom times for googly eyes.
Within months of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the metaphysical sci-fi comedy whose panoply of metaverses memorably included one that made magic out of a pair of stones and some plastic eyeballs, arrives “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.”
Marcel is an inch-tall seashell with a single googly eye, a pair of Polly Pocket shoes and a very big heart. He introduces himself as a shell, “but I also have shoes and a face.”
“I like that about myself,” says Marcel.
“Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” is a feature-length, stop-motion animation film based on the YouTube shorts made by Jenny Slate, who voices Marcel with a snuggly high pitch, and director Dean Fleischer Camp. It’s a leap in scale that Marcel, who sleeps on a slice of bread and plays “Taps” through a macaroni, would probably appreciate, himself.
The experience of being small, and knee-weakeningly cute, is much at the heart of “Marcel the Shell,” very possibly the sweetest movie ever made about a mollusk. To Marcel, there’s great joy and pride in getting around as a little guy, and only occasional trepidation. The sight of the housecleaner – “the harbinger of the vacuum” – is one example of concern. But mostly he does just fine. He uses a mixer tied to a branch to shake fruit from a tree outside the window. When he wants to get around quicker, he uses his “rover,” a tennis ball with a hole to climb into.
In the film, which takes the same sunny spirit and loose mockumentary style of the shorts, Marcel lives largely out of sight in a California home with his gardening grandmother, Connie (Isabella Rossellini, an all-time great bit of voice casting). They have passed unnoticed until a documentary filmmaker, Dean (Camp) moves in and begins filming. And, like an imaginative child, Marcel likes the attention, constantly showing Dean little tricks of being small and eagerly sharing a steady stream of non-sequitur thoughts and motivational slogans. One comes from the athlete Marcel calls “Whale Jetski”: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Marcel’s unpredictable references and tastes are part of his charm. He and Connie, for example, are huge fans of Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes,” and watch regularly. “She blows cases wide open,” explains Marcel. After Dean posts clips of Marcel on YouTube that garner millions of views, fame comes a little uncomfortably for Marcel. TikTokers turn up outside the house. Even Stahl comes calling.
How much sensation a shell can handle is part of the story of “Marcel the Shell.” But it’s more about preserving, in the face of heartache and self-doubt, a childlike appreciation for the littlest things in life.
Melancholy surrounds the film. It takes place almost entirely within and around the house, giving it a homebody’s loneliness. Something uncertain has happened that has uprooted Marcel’s larger community, leaving only him and Connie, whose health is slipping. Dean, too, is nursing heartbreak. We don’t learn much about his life, or even often see him, but we know he’s just gone through a divorce. (Slate and Camp were themselves divorced in 2016. Their handmade movie is, in part, the tender product of a relationship that receded.)
“Marcel the Shell” may verge, or even tip, into cloying territory – such is the ever-present danger of googly eyes. But it may be the only movie that can pull off a line like, “Guess why I smile a lot? Uh, cause it’s worth it.” There’s something unexpectedly tough about Marcel, a resilient soul who faces the ups and downs of life with pluck and playfulness. “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” could be considered a kids movie or an art-house indie (A24 is releasing). But its proper audience might be anyone who’s ever felt sanded down by life, and could use a roll in Marcel’s rover.