We can stipulate that Jenny Slate, the stand-up comedian and creator and star of the beguiling 2014 comedy “Obvious Child,” is adorable. In “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” she brings that A-game to a vocal performance as the title character, a tiny shell with one googly eye and a pair of pink shoes, who has become an object of fascination for a documentary filmmaker named Dean (Dean Fleischer-Camp).
Based on a short film that Slate and Fleischer-Camp released in 2010 to resounding virality, followed by two short sequels, “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” stretches the original mock-doc conceit to its tender, absurdist, sometimes padded-out limits. In a crackly almost-baby voice that is usually reserved for people talking to their pets (guilty), Marcel explains how his “community” was decimated when the couple that owned the house they were living in split up. While most of the extended and chosen shell family inadvertently moved with the husband, Marcel and his “Nana Connie” were left behind to patch together a life and cope with their mutual loneliness and grief. Think “The Leftovers” meets E.T., with bottle-cap tables and zip lines made out of “hardy hairs.”
What are “hardy hairs,” you ask? The answer is just one of several amusing bits in “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” which combines stop-motion animation and live action to create a world of enchantment, creativity and mustn’t-grumble enterprise. That world is also arduous, and navigated at a snail’s pace: To watch “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” is to readjust not just one’s perspective, but one’s entire metabolism.
For the most part, Fleischer-Camp – who directs “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” from a script and story he co-wrote with Slate, Elizabeth Holm and Nick Paley – rewards the commitment, although there are moments when the film feels like it’s reaching to earn its almost 90-minute running time. When Marcel decides to look for his family, he becomes an unexpected internet star, plunging him into the dizzying world of likes, retweets and invading hordes of selfie-taking fans; his obsession with “60 Minutes” – “We just call it ‘the show,’ we love it that much,” he gushes – results in a thrilling invitation to appear on the program, resulting in a sequence that should earn Lesley Stahl this year’s good sport Oscar.
Tucked in between the gently lobbed jokes and twee set pieces are some trenchant critiques of self-cannibalizing social media (an audience, it turns out, isn’t a community after all) and documentary ethics of balance and self-disclosure. And for his core audience, at least, Marcel’s delicately wrought humanism is just the right balm for a time drenched in despair and mutual disregard.
It’s all super-cute and even genuinely affecting, thanks to a soulful vocal performance by Isabella Rossellini as Connie. (At a preview screening, I noted that the actress playing her sounded like Ingrid Bergman with an Italian accent: voilà.) But by the time “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” reaches its heartwarming conclusion, it begins to meander, its wistful evocation of time, loss and meaning giving way to gratuitous goofiness and focus-pulling digressions. Even a character as sincere and innocently wise as Marcel isn’t above fan service, even if it means taking a sweetly captivating idea an inch too far.
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