Marcel The Shell With Shoes On Review: A Lovely Slice Of Whimsical, Melancholy Magic [SXSW]

Perhaps the thrilling beauty of "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On" is that it feels like it actually happened.

Yes, that is an unusual thing to say about a movie where a man befriends a one-inch-tall shell with little shoes, a tiny mouth, and a single expressive eyeball that lives in the Airbnb where he's biding his time after a break-up. But it's true. So many projects, from the collected filmography of Christopher Guest to NBC's undying "The Office," take on the "mockumentary" or faux doc approach, using the style and timing of documentary filmmaking as an aesthetic choice to set up jokes, or tell stories in an abbreviated, familiar format. Yet, they don't feel like they actually happened. They borrow a format drawn from reality, but it's a temporary space. A place where gags live. But "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On," a slice of low-key magical realism that's as drawl as it is sweet and inspired, has the feeling of an actual documentary — like someone really did shoot hundreds of hours of footage with a delightful, observant, altogether unlikely roommate and cut it into an actual motion picture that we are somehow able to watch.

The effect is striking. Moving. Unique. Like co-writer/director/co-star Dean Fleischer-Camp turned his camera on an actual subject. Marcel the Shell (who has shoes on, by the way) is as vividly realized as any character you're bound to encounter on a cinema screen this year.

Fleischer-Camp wisely doesn't offer any excuses for his subject, no extended first act where anyone says, "Holy hell, there's a tiny talking shell with a big eyeball and shoes on living in this house where he has built an entire structured lifestyle to survive his version of poverty and care for his ailing grandmother." It just is. And that "is" remains for the entirety of the film. The "documentary" we're watching assumes we know this is possible — of course they made a feature-length doc about Marcel the Shell, didn't you see the YouTube video that went viral?

Engagement over occupation

That's the premise that kicks off the movie. Dean (Fleischer-Camp, essentially playing himself) turns his lens on Marcel (co-writer Jenny Slate), a plucky little creature that feels as if they were born from a dreamy collaboration between Pixar and Rankin-Bass. He films Marcel going about his day, where he makes use of found objects to explore the wide expanse of the human house he calls home, and helps his aging but passionate grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini) tend to a strange little farm. When Dean uploads their earliest chats to YouTube, Marcel becomes internet famous, a meme, a subject for Twitter and TikiTok and Facebook. And seeing an opportunity in his 15 minutes of fame, Marcel shoots his shot. He will use this new platform to find his family, a small army of fellow shell creatures who vanished when the couple who previously owned the house broke up and scattered his relatives to the wind.

If that sounds low-stakes, that's because it is. "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On" operates at a charming whisper, unafraid to let its story be told in quiet, charming conversations and observational comedy that feels akin to the gentlest work of Hayao Miyazaki and the clockwork timing of Jaques Tati. Ostensibly a family movie, the tone is far from Hollywood, and those expecting loud set pieces or inane needle-drops need not concern themselves. This is the kind of movie built to engage kids, not occupy them.

The movie doesn't work if Marcel doesn't work, but the little shell (with shoes on) leaps off the screen, feeling as real as any human character you will encounter. Shot in a confident, handheld recreation of cinema verite, Marcel's minor adventures and routines are bemusing and frequently hilarious. He uses honey to scale walls like Spider-Man, a tennis ball as a mode of transportation, and a slice of bread as a sofa. He's engaged but casual — this is his life, and he's glad to talk about it, glad that someone noticed, glad to share the little ways he has survived in the absence of his family, and how he has kept Connie alive.

Shells and survivors

Survive is the key word here. "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On" is the portrait of a survivor, a tiny shell creature whose ingenuity has kept him alive even as his community was stripped away. His sense of humor and his positive attitude barely mask a wounded little dude who's barely scraping by, who is only alive because of his ingenuity, and because his love for his grandmother and his hope for a future reunion have empowered him. Fleischer-Camp doesn't lay this element on thick (the "laying on thick" aspect is applied elsewhere), and that's how the barely discussed but widely felt details of Marcel's story land. Yes, this is a fake documentary about a talking shell with shoes on, but the lurking melancholy of it all arrives with startling power. Marcel could be, should be, dead. And he's not. He has survived in a hostile world, forgotten and discarded, but unwilling to give up or give in.

Jenny Slate, so adept with both comedy and drama, gives a transformative voice-over performance as Marcel, capturing those open wounds but also that wry sense of observational humor and a blend of naïveté and toughness that feels so real because it feels so fresh. She's warm, hilarious, adorable — you forget this is the voice of the actress from "Parks and Recreation" and "Obvious Child" within minutes. Equally compelling are the low-key special effects that bring Marcel to life. I deliberately avoided looking up if he was created using traditional stop-motion effects or if he is a purely digital creation that mimics the look of that style. I don't want to know. I want the magic to linger. I want Marcel to continue to feel real.

If "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On" stumbles at all, it's in its final stretch, where characters literally appear on screen to speak the story's themes directly to the audience (and perhaps directly to younger viewers). But that's forgivable, and the kind of nitpicking that feels like it'll fade away with time. It's easy to imagine this becoming a favorite movie for curious, creative kids and their cineaste parents — a cute, sweet, funny, imaginative tale dressed up like reality, an ode to survivors and the power of community. Did I mention the shell has shoes on?

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10