Antidote for movie blues? Meet ‘Marcel the Shell’

The news is bad. The world feels too hot or too cold. And maybe the midterm elections didn’t go your way.

That will be okay. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is the pick-me-up we all need.

“Sweet” makes it sound too easy; The animated film has a genuinely upbeat vibe, but it also treats its tiny, tiny stop-motion subjects — “shells,” not snails, by the way — with tender sincerity. There’s a story in the fake documentary (director and co-writer Dean Fleischer Camp conspicuously dislikes the term “mockumentary”), but the film isn’t plot-driven. There’s a lot of fighting for the titular aspiring shell, but there’s no antagonist.

“Some of my favorite movies don’t have an antagonist,” Camp notes.

“Isn’t the inside of one’s mind adversary enough?” asks co-writer and star Jenny Slate, the Saturday Night Live and Zootopia alum, while they both laugh.

Young Marcel (Slate) and his grandmother Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini, cast to perfection) are the only ones left after a catastrophe wiped out the rest of their family. Human documentary filmmaker Dean (played by Camp, heard in constant conversation with Marcel, but mostly unseen) has moved into the human house and is filming interviews with Marcel. Their budding friendship opens up a way to find Marcel’s family. But actually, the film is an extended meeting place with the exceedingly nice little human, who shows us his imaginative adjustments to his world and muses on life. As Slate puts it, “All the daily glories and pains of being an individual around you.”

Camp says, “Our main guiding principle was that we wanted to tell a real, documentary portrait of a character who happens to be doing it, as authentically as possible Not be honest. I wanted to show him the same respect and dignity that you would show to any documentary subject.”

Slate and Camp, when they were romantic partners, camped out with others at a wedding around 2010. The tiny, matter-of-fact voice that would become Marcel emerged from Slate in a running comment about the clutter of the common room. Later, when Camp was commissioned to animate a short film for a friend’s project, he asked Slate if he could interview the character for it – and one bloody gorgeous star was born.

“The first time it was shown, it was Brooklyn in 2011: an entangled, judgmental art audience, an art comedy audience,” says the director. “The fact that they were warmed up felt like, ‘This character really connects and accesses something important.’ ”

In fact, Marcel can disarm even the hardest of hearts. Maybe it’s because, despite having no arms, he’s like a beloved Robinson Crusoe in the gigantic wilderness of a man’s home.

“He’s a little guy just trying to make his way in a world that wasn’t made for him,” says Camp. “And we all relate to it in some way [first] as children. And the art form of stop motion animation is so fallible and so human. You can see the fingerprints and the glue, especially on such small dolls. You get all these errors and this jerky movement that seems very vulnerable to me.”

The character was eventually introduced in three short films that garnered tens of millions of views on YouTube and in two children’s books prior to the film. Slate says Marcel went out on his own – the improvisation just kept growing and growing: “He never seemed like that [just] a vehicle for one-liners. We went with what was natural.

“The film has many themes; it’s about a lot. But the reason the story can exist at all is because the two characters who are always talking – the Dean character and the Marcel character – have an unlikely but really working camaraderie. It felt real to us. And ourselves, we have a long-standing camaraderie. We’ve known each other for a long time and it uses that in a different way.”

Slate and Camp were married from 2012 to 2016; Their creative partnership predated their marriage and clearly survived their decline.

Slate says, “The weirdest thing is that we haven’t stopped working at all.” They both laugh. “I don’t think there was a time when we were apart or anything.

“When I look at Dean’s filmmaking [now], I see all his talents and strengths and the things I always saw in him when I met him in his early 20s. One thing I’m proud of is that, much like Marcel, our strength emerged and worked during that time.”

Camp agrees. “The engine starts again the second we’re in the same room talking about this character. I’m not worried it will wither away because it feels so basic to me.”

The two also credit their co-writer Nick Paley (“He always says the best,” says Slate) for helping them understand why Marcel ends up with so many people. As Camp recounts, Paley said of one scene, “That’s the kind of truth that keeps people company.” Antidote for movie blues? Meet ‘Marcel the Shell’

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