Directed by Dean Fleischer Camp
Written by Jenny Slate, Nick Paley, and Dean Fleischer Camp
I've made noises about how much 2022 exceeded my expectations, cinema-wise; I think it was, all told, a very strong year. I've also made noises about how, despite it being a good year for film overall, it was a dreary year for animation, one of the worst years for feature animation since it started making any sense to talk about feature animation having "years" in the first place. Thank heaven for Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, that's all.
It has never made sense to talk about "years" for feature stop-motion animation, but if it could make sense, I don't think it's likely that there would be a worse one. This is not solely the fault of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On: we also have Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio, and, despite its plaudits, I would describe it as pretty lousy; furthermore, there's Wendell & Wild, bad enough that I wouldn't consider the phrase "a piece of shit" completely out-of-bounds. Astoundingly, I don't know if I'd need to lean on them. 2022 could feel like the worst year for feature stop-motion animation there ever was and it actually could be solely the fault of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On; Marcel the Shell With Shoes On could make it make sense to talk of stop-motion animation "years," and render 2022 the nadir of the artform, single-handedly. Now, yes: I'm sure there's "worse" stop-motion animation from the mid-century, short sequences on children's television, Christmas specials, hobbyist excursions, creepy crap that seeps back up through the cracks of YouTube, that sort of thing—you know, actual ephemera—and there are undoubtedly many, many pieces of stop-motion animation that have worse technical bona fides, although I question whether they actually do have the same technical bona fides. But none of them are an hour and a half long. I daresay none of them are as conceptually and aesthetically broken as Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, which, yes, I will be typing out in full throughout this review, as a way of reflecting the grating obnoxiousness of the film itself. You're welcome.
It is, I suppose, worth making explicit what should go without saying, that this is purely personal judgment. This is, in fact, an extreme fringe minority opinion on Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, for a lot of people love it, and on the back of that love it's managed to secure an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, which, horrifyingly, it could actually win. But those people are motherfucking high, and if this wins the Oscar, the Oscars will be dead to me forevermore, all years thereafter defined by the earth-shaking transition between the B.M.S.W.S.O. period and a post-apocalyptic, A.M.S.W.S.O. era.
So: the plot, or rather the events, of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On concern young Marcel (Jenny Slate), a stop-motion animated shell with pink shoes on who lives almost alone in a house that's been converted to an AirBnB in the aftermath of its married owners' break-up, which inflicted a great disaster upon Marcel's previously-vibrant shell-and-other-DIY-toy community, as the vast majority of that community were accidentally scooped up by the husband of the family in his luggage and carted off to a new location. Since then, it's only been Marcel and his very old grandmother Connie (Isabella Rosselini), attempting to make sense of an existence within what, to them, is a sprawling cavern designed for giants. It has been a travail for Marcel, and the problems such a life has occasioned have only been solved, not always that well, by Marcel and Connie's ingenuity and courage as they continue to persevere in the shadow of a succession of new human occupants.
There is not one blessed thing wrong with that. It's not, however, except in very brief glimpses, the actual story of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is actually a fauxcumentary compiled out of footage captured by the AirBnB's latest resident, Dean Fleischer Camp (Marcel the Shell With Shoes On director, Dean Fleischer Camp), and my God, everything potentially okay about this is ruined by this decision. There is, for several minutes at the beginning, slightly more of an observational mood, in which the film follows Marcel around and details the various idiosyncrasies of life as a one-inch high seashell-creature Robinson Crusoeing his way through a house, and while this becomes destabilized instantaneously by the existence of a camera and an audience, and by the stupid literalization of the appeal of stories like these, that is, the exploration of a mysterious secret world, it's not completely unpleasant. Yet very soon Dean (that is, the character in the film) actually befriends his subject—which he initially resists, for reasons that are not altogether too clear, as he's just some dickwad making content for YouTube, not David Attenborough—but he doesn't resist much, and it's not long before the movie is basically just conversations with Dean and Marcel with Marcel dispensing the wisdom of a child to a YouTuber who's living in an AirBnB because he's getting divorced and who, theoretically, could be sad about that. This is purely theoretical, mind you, and that makes me kind of ill, but let's circle back to why later.
For now, I just want to be clear that I don't have some visceral objection to tweeness. I like tweeness (except in music, where it feels like it's draining my soul from my body, unless They Might Be Giants are twee), and it's not the tweeness that bothers me here anyway, though I'd have appreciated it if it had been even modestly amusing about it. By my count, I laughed five times, and only if you consider a sort of closed-mouth contraction of one's larynx a "laugh"; if not, I laughed once, at about the only thing here that feels like an actual joke, when Marcel, asked how long he's been separated, launches into a long ramble about seasons, time, and the universe, at the end of which Dean, having indulged his friend's discursive fancy, answers the question in two words. The rest of it is what I guess one might call "aimless interviewing." It is, I realize, not going for laugh-out-loud funny, so that's a bad metric to judge it by. The goal, near as I can tell, is Slate's cute little shell voice turning over questions beyond what a cute little shell should be able to answer—a gentle protagonist faced with profound change, prolonged isolation, and existential concerns, with a little added resonance for kids who felt abandoned during a divorce—and I think I could have summoned enough gentleness of my own to like this. Even then, I confess I'd have been strained by Marcel's singing voice in any circumstance, given how badly it reveals where the absolute limits of Slate's soft-scratchy adult-baby performance lay, which in turn suggests one reason besides tone why the film needs to remain so ungodly narrow in its emotional scope.
I haven't even really discussed the actual plot, which is where Marcel the Shell With Shoes On becomes what I'd have to presume must be the worst possible version of itself, and what the movie is "about," in terms of "what happens in it," is to a downright violent degree how Dean puts Marcel on YouTube and Marcel becomes an Internet celebrity. In other words, this is a fake YouTube video, about YouTube videos, similar to the real YouTube videos that served as proof of concept for this film, which is about fake YouTube videos. When I really break into YouTube headquarters, run to the fifth floor, and jump through a window, I'm going to have my estate upload that video to YouTube.
It is never exactly clarified what the existence of shell-creatures means—I'm not sure I'd want it to, and, yes, I can relax, but it's a little confusing how Marcel can be interesting to millions but not simultaneously be terrifying and world-changing. Nevertheless, the origin of the concept, Marcel the shell upon whom there are shoes, is much better understood. It's such an aggressively banal story that I'm surprised Slate herself doesn't just cut it down to what we actually need from it, "it was a funny voice I started doing one day," but at some point thereafter she and her then-husband, Fleischer Camp, came up with a vehicle for it. This was the original series of Marcel shorts, and they determined to make a feature-length film out of these two-minute doodles despite apparently having no actual basis for one (which, and I know I'm repeating myself, still irritates me, because just doing Marcel's adventure straight writes itself, you just have to supply his challenges, and because he's a tiny shell this should be incredibly easy). Anyway, they came up with the inciting incident where the couple that lives in the home gets divorced, and the notion of a narrator/filmmaker who moves in, during his own divorce. Then they divorced.
So you know how artists sometimes—sometimes with great struggle—put themselves into their art? I mean, consider James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd's The Abyss, a movie about divorce that became a howling cry of desperation as its principals also divorced. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is the diametric opposite of putting yourself into your art—somehow, since Fleischer Camp and Slate are, literally, in their art. Which maybe makes it the opposite of art. But whatever rapprochement it took to get them to work together for the duration of this generated some sort of anti-subtext field around the project, so that at virtually no point is the very slightest hint of any actual human emotion about divorce named, activated, or dwelled upon. I can only assume Dean's wife divorced him because he's the dullest piece of shit on Earth. I assume Slate and Fleischer Camp divorced for different reasons, because they appear to place the same value on moving through life with the bare minimum of friction or affect. It's so unraw, so impersonal, so inhumanly smooth about this that it makes me like Marcel the Shell With Shoes On less than I did in the first place, and this was already not much.
So the plot of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On? That's about whether Marcel, annoyed by his brush with Internet celebrity, will or will not consent to an interview with his favorite television inquisitor, Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes. (To a secondary degree, it's about using the Internet to identify the previous occupants of the house, something that should take about a day but occupies the whole feature, so it takes several eons.) It is at this point that Marcel, not content to merely be a bad movie that's already just stating its themes aloud, begins to celebrate its own accomplishment as a spiritual salve while the movie's still on, in ways that I'd have found infinitely gauche even in a movie that actually had accomplished something, and that I find genuinely despicable in a movie that's so up its own shell's ass that it was already basically just Marcel and the world's most boring human talking about those themes for an hour.
The fauxcumentary form has other problems, too, but if we're talking about form, it may be appropriate at this juncture to ask the fundamental question, "Is this actually even an animated movie?" It does, obviously, have stop-motion animation in it, and it is an august tradition of that medium to simply use houses and objects found in situ as the backdrops for stop-motion animated action. (I'll give Fleischer Camp this: there's enough thought put into some compositions that you can't ever use the subtitles for his movie, which certainly isn't very accessible, but as far as the film goes, it's "correct," insofar as Marcel is usually blocked into the very bottom of the frame and even when the camera is "close," he often remains a teensy little thing.) But there is a level of, you know, stuff that you expect an animated feature to do, and "half the shots don't have animation in them at all, and are just waving a camera out a car window or at the front yard, or ugly fake macrophotography of immobile objects," is not exactly the substance of that stuff. There's a lot of camera movement and things like Marcel standing on a "z" key on a keyboard whilst the screen, naturally, registers a long string of z's—and I wish this movie actually were as sleepy as this implies—which are, initially, kind of impressive in the way that you might compare it to the preposterous miracle of camera movement in something like 1945's "A Christmas Dream," or even something as late as 1993's A Nightmare Before Christmas, and therefore prompt yourself into being suitably impressed. And maybe there actually was a lot of meticulous motion-controlled camerawork here and a program coded to get those "z's" right. But the apparently-natural light conditions very much suggest the opposite, and about ten minutes before it ends, we have a shakycam shot of a dog playing with Marcel and I know that all they've actually done is digitally composite a crudely stop-motion animated toy into this shot, so now I have to look back and assume that anything of any difficulty whatsoever was done exactly the same way, whether they got "stop-motion rain" to look like "stop-motion rain" or not. I mean, this is a movie where I'm 90% certain that several of the apricots that Marcel shakes loose from the tree outside still have the grocery store produce stickers on them (I'm only 10% uncertain because of the hideous shallow focus), and it's not otherwise even a little bit a movie about fun "look at these seams" gags.
But the fauxcumentary form, I was saying, adds its own woes, and to my eyes this thing was physically painful to watch: for a film straight-up advertised as soothing and maybe even meditative in its simplicity, it's a heinous mess in terms of photography and editing, the fauxcumentary giving Fleischer Camp leave to spend half the film shooting it handheld, with all the nausea that implies, and it's only ever made worse with temporally-unmoored "documentary" cross-cutting that's virtually random (and with genuinely random cutting that's absolutely mindless); for the cherry on top, let's also have some "Internet montages" regarding anonymous netizens praising Marcel, which involve smartphone clips blown up and oriented so that they're effectively just pixelated smears. And a lot of this movie is relayed via the mediation of Dean's laptop screen, and I won't even go on about how boring this is. I will simply say that you'd think Fleischer Camp would have cleaned it—the movie we're watching is supposed to be a movie Dean's making for people to watch, for Christ's sake—but this is one inutterably filthy screen, covered with these translucent globs of I wouldn't like to say what, like how my phone is sometimes. I'm not saying I can identify what these globs are, not hardly. But I know where the ones on my phone come from. And then I fucking clean it, dude.