When I was a kid, my sister and I had shelves filled with carefully arranged miniatures, ceramic animals and the tiny, delicate like. I never thought much about these displays, though now I see that collecting and ordering these diminutive emblems of the world is a way children express agency and control as they enter it. It’s no wonder that miniatures seem so charming: They’re time machines. The minuscule gives us access to “the enlarging gaze of the child,” as the philosopher Gaston Bachelard puts it in his book “The Poetics of Space.”
This partly explains the tug of “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” about a teeny-tiny creature in a great, big world. He’s a curious fellow, as in inquisitive, but also simply peculiar. For starters, he’s a shell. Not a land snail or one of the sea creatures whose hard protective layer can be found washed up on shores. Marcel is inexplicably alive, even if, from the looks of him, he’s little more than a walking, talking empty carapace, a whatsit about an inch big with one googly eye, two shoes and an animated mouth that’s a font for a high-pitched, babyish voice.
That adenoidal falsetto — courtesy of the comic performer Jenny Slate — is a lot. And it could easily have been a deal-breaker. Marcel is very talkative in the way that, at its most sweet and appealing, recalls the sincere burbling of children sharing every single little thing racing through their fired-up minds. At its least attractive, you may grimly flash on the last gasbag you were stuck next to while waiting on some interminable line. It took me time to warm to the voice, admittedly. In part that’s because you can hear all the calculation shaping Marcel’s stream, the coyness and practiced comedy of its ebb and flow, though mostly flow.
It’s fine and sometimes productive to see the labor in a performance, but not here. That’s because while “Marcel the Shell” captivates you with its mix of real objects and animation, its nubby textures and huge thumbtacks, for it to work you need to forget about Slate and just go with the lightly surrealistic silliness. It helps, in other words, to fall in love with Marcel. He’s the protagonist, so there’s no escaping him. But caring for him is crucial because, once he’s shown you around and you’ve met his grandmother — another shell voiced by the invaluable Isabella Rossellini — there is not all that much going on, even if quite a bit happens.
Marcel was birthed in 2010 in a three-minute-plus short. Created by Slate and Dean Fleischer Camp, who posted it to YouTube, the short introduced Marcel with small strokes, a shoestring budget and rudimentary but effective stop-motion animation. Of indeterminate origin, Marcel lives in a big house, sleeps on bread and drags around a ball of lint with a human hair. “My one regret in life,” he said then, “is that I’ll never have a dog.” With its artful naïveté and a gentle undertow of melancholia, the short racked up millions of views, and what Marcel soon did have was fame, more shorts, a book and now this feature-length vehicle.
“Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” builds on its predecessors to intermittently productive effect. Once again, Marcel is pulling on lint, making a bed of bread and living in a human house, a wee soul in a land of giants. And as he did before, Marcel is talking to, though often at, a guy. This man has a name, Dean (affably voiced by Camp), and a back story. When the movie opens, he is living in Marcel’s house, which has been converted into an Airbnb with disastrous consequences that give the tale shape and sentimentality. He’s also making a documentary about his unusual roommate that he soon posts to, yes, YouTube.
Advertising tie-ins are now part of Marcel-land, which is a letdown, as is the part of the story which turns on that quintessentially American chronicle of identity, being and becoming: celebrity. Dean’s portrait racks up views, makes Marcel famous and stirs up trouble; enter Lesley Stahl and gawkers wielding selfie sticks. Some of this is funny, if overly familiar, but the self-reflexiveness of the entire enterprise only breaks the spell that Slate and Camp work hard to maintain — one which Rossellini effortlessly keeps intact with intelligence, beautifully controlled phrasing and a soft, melodious warmth that feels like a tender caress.
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
Rated PG for some itty-bitty peril and a death. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. In theaters.