Curiouser and Curiouser: Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
The amazing adventures (and tragic elements) of being tiny in a human-size world
by Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell
Although I loved Marcel the Shell With Shoes On the first time and indeed first minute I saw it last July--with my sister Georgia, who lives upstairs from me in a 1903 building right across from a multiplex that was a burlesque house when I first ventured inside it in 1962--I never took Carola to see it even though I was sure she'd love it too. Blame post-pandemic inertia--a month later we caught Bullet Train in Vermont three days after Nina and I had chortled at it with a handful of teenagers in Connecticut. So when a plethora of Oscar promotions plastered Marcel up on Showtime a few weeks ago, you bet we took advantage, and swore we'd stream it for Nina, who soon enough was on the couch chuckling and parsing details as the two of us enjoyed it again. Where I merely tweeted "Best animated feature Oscar nothing. Best film period," Carola was so blown away that she put her own writing project aside and started converting her delight into prose.
What neither of us knew was that for all Manohla Dargis's pissy June 23 Times reservations about "the coyness and practiced comedy of its ebb and flow," we were late to the bandwagon--when I checked on Rotten Tomatoes, the ratings, which did not include Dargis's for what I assume are copyright reasons, came out 179-3 positive, the kind of numbers that never happen there. It did less well with Metacritic's cherry-picked pros, but even there it scored an unusually upful 80, with Dargis's 60 the very last of the reviews that provided such bytebites as "Funny, profound, weird, sad, and gorgeously constructed," "might just be the most purely joyful, stealthily profound movie experience of the year," "a film with massive ambitions and an even larger heart," and "the most unassuming and delicate of movies, but don't be shocked if it leaves you in ruins."
Despite several three-minute YouTube precedes that generated a cult for Dean Fleischer's feature film--there's now also a 20-minute minidoc detailing the scrupulousness of its set design and the laborious trickery of its stop-motion animation--the Oscar it didn't win was for Best Animated Film. Since Carola and I knew nothing of its sizable online cult, which seeded the theatrical feature's production budget and core audience, she did some light research so what she wrote could begin at the beginning: "It's animated, but the voice gets you first, and that's how it began. Stand-up comic Jenny Slate, then filmmaker Dean Fleischer's girlfriend, felt so squoze in a small hotel room the two once shared with way too many other guests at a crowded wedding that she commenced to talk in a tiny squoze voice. Eventually she decided that the voice belonged to a shell with shoes on, and the rest is history. From Peter Pan to Persepolis, Wile E. Coyote to Flee, we have long appreciated animation for both its cuteness and its useful ability to wobble between realism and incredibility, as in 2021's Oscar-nominated Flee, which narrates a refugee family's odyssey from Afghanistan through Moscow to Sweden and includes such terrifying moments the family's trudge through a snow-covered forest and its near death in the Baltic Sea as well as first time the young Muslim protagonist is taken to a gay bar.
"The amazing adventures in Marcel's life are mostly about being tiny in a human-size world: converting tennis balls into indoor taxi cabs, stepping in honey to give tiny feet a way to climb wall. Its tragic elements confront loneliness--Marcel's extended family disappeared in a suitcase two years before, leaving young Marcel alone with his Nonna Connie, whose lines are delivered with striking kindness and depth by Isabella Rossellini. 'She came from the garage originally,' Marcel explains. 'That's why she has that accent.'" Carola also observes that Marcel has the intellectual acuity of a preteen who's attended a very good public school, as in my favorite example: "If you say my head is too big for my body I say compared to what." His curiosity is endless: "Have you ever eaten a raspberry and what was that like?" he wants to know. And he's highly alert to the educational content of television--although when he perches on the dashboard for his first automobile ride he's totally unprepared for how huge the world is.
But not only is the world huge, it accommodates species of seriousness that the run of professional critics, not to mention Oscar voters, are too full of hot air to make room for. The first or maybe second minute I saw this film, and then again the twice on TV I've seen it since, I found myself murmuring to nearby loved ones: "How in the world did they think of this? I've never imagined anything remotely like it." And because the world is so huge, it makes perfect sense that this piece of humane fancy began with a justifiably claustrophobic comedienne trying to joke her way out of the tight spot she was in--who then kept joking and thinking about it and joking and thinking about it some more.