As the kids say, a little goes a long way. In the world of Internet videos, it’s almost a given that a showcase of the small and the cute makes a splash. As he did with the 2010 internet short Marcel the shod shell. Created by Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate, the short captured attention with its humorous portrayal of the world. Of course, any sensation is tied to brand expansion. In the years that followed, there were two short films and two picture books. Now in 2022, this expansion takes the form of a feature film titled Marcel the shod shell. With an expanded reach, how exactly does he get comfortable?
To answer this, you have to wrestle with a new element to Marcel the shell: a true story. It’s not just about gags like treating a stray piece of plush like a dog anymore. Here we have Marcel (Slate) trying to find his family after he and his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini) become separated from the seashell community. His best guess centers on his last encounter with the humans Mark (Thomas Mann) and Larissa (Rosa Salazar), but that’s hardly concrete proof. Dean (Fleischer-Camp, who also directs) helps them, a documentary filmmaker whose current project is to film everything Marcel does. In fact, Dean’s Marcel videos are becoming popular enough online that the search for the family has become real news.
On the surface, it’s a solid foundation for Fleischer-Camp, Slate, and Nick Paley’s screenplay to build on. However, the mere existence of a story doesn’t mean the film will make it a top priority. Early, Marcel the shell announces to audiences that fade-to-black transitions will be a recurring way to move between scenes. This may seem like a benign choice of editors Fleischer-Camp and Paley. But halfway through, it seems they think of the plot as a series of sequences – shorts, if you will – and not as a whole. And it’s that distinction that makes its relatively short 90-minute runtime inflated.
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It might not be a problem if the filmmakers reinvigorated the Marcel formula for the big screen. Even here, Marcel the shell struggles to add a fun new bone to the equation. If you’ve seen any of the shorts, you’ve seen how the film undermines comedy. Very often it’s a variation of “this X is my Y” repeated a hundred times. In the context of a short film, this can be hilarious. In the context of a feature film, meanwhile, it becomes tiring. To give credit, in cases where the comedic insight leads to embarrassment — like fans taking selfies outside Marcel’s house — it seems intentional. Nevertheless, the recycling of amusing observations tends to put a strict limit on their charm.
But there’s the main compensating factor: visually speaking, it’s an almost perfect homage to the little big world. Marcel may not do a lot of comedy, but what he does is much more refined than before. Every two minutes, production designer Liz Toonkel reuses small-scale objects, and each time is an absolute delight. The film has a lived-in aesthetic that can counteract the most solid gags, from the mini treehouses to the room made out of a hole in the wall. As expected, this also extends to expressive character designs that never ignore their rambling roots.
It’s honestly frustrating how Marcel the shell just click like a movie. Between cinematographer Bianca Cline’s soft lighting and detailed macro imagery, it excels at creating a comfortable environment. Plus, this is another case study of Slate as one of our most gifted vocal performers. Unfortunately, the comfort seems to have transferred to the aspects that should be more inventive. So instead of a shameless cinematic experience, we get a lengthy compilation of shorts that Fleischer-Camp and Slate had in mind. Sure, it’s cute, but a movie has to be more than that to make a really good impression. – Mark Tan
Marcel the shod shell will have a wide release on July 15, 2022.