Clam Happy: Fleischer-Camp Fleshes Out His Amusing/Absurd Sketch of a Precocious Mollusk
On paper, the inevitability of something like Marcel the Shell with Shoes On straying into either frivolity or teeth gritting tweeness seems a given. Such cynical expectations actually serve to heighten an unexpected poignancy and abundance of charm to be experienced in this mockumentary of an anthropomorphized mollusk voiced by Jenny Slate, a character she developed with director Dean Fleischer-Camp across three short films (from 2010 to 2014).
Although more of an escapist bit of sweetness, this mix of stop-motion animation plays like Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky (2018) as a Jan Svankmajer exercise, a surprisingly adept and ultimately infectious jolt on endings, beginnings and friendship amplified by a depiction of hyper articulate behaviors used to circumvent melancholy and desolation.
Marcel (Slate) is a young, self-described one-inch, one-eyed shell with shoes on living in a Los Angeles Airbnb property with his grandmother, Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini). When an aspiring documentarian named Dean (Fleischer-Camp) rents the home while looking for a place to live after a recent breakup, he discovers the ingenious and affable Marcel, filming the shell and posting the videos online. Soon, Marcel becomes something of an internet celebrity, and together they decide to use this platform to search for the owners of the home, a couple who divorced, and with them, accidentally displaced the rest of Marcel’s community. Courting the attention of investigative television show 60 Minutes, Marcel is reluctant to allow a film crew into the home when Connie’s health suddenly seems to rapidly decline.
For the most part, Fleischer-Camp remains off camera, present only through amused vocal interjections or pivoting conversations with Marcel away from his own personal miseries as a divorcee. Exposition on how Marcel and Connie came to be alone in a home once occupied by an unhappy couple is woven seamlessly and organically into the film’s narrative fabric, while every verbal and visual attenuation feels methodically considered and contemplated. Thoughtful without being schmaltzy, Fleischer-Camp’s script, co-written by story originators Nick Paley and Jenny Slate, builds to quietly tearful crescendos of emotion between Marcel, hopeful to reunite with his misplaced community, and the dying Connie, voiced immaculately with a lovely mix of weirdness and wisdom always supplied by Isabella Rossellini.
Although Rosa Salazar and Thomas Mann have little screen time as the sparring couple whose separation caused Marcel’s clan such distress, an archly amusing Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes appears as herself in the third act catalyst allowing for a sweet reunion. Connie reads Dean (and us) the poem The Trees by Philip Larkin, driving home the unavoidable sadness of life’s perennial cycles. “Their greenness is a kind of grief,” is a line describing fresh leaves come springtime, but encapsulates the essence of what Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is all about—-despite our self-awareness, focusing on the innate joy made possible by embracing and caring for those in our environments as a way to appreciate life since all are destined for the same inevitability.