Filmmaker Dean Fleischer Camp and comedian Jenny Slate (formerly the infamous Mona-Lisa Saperstein on TV's Parks & Recreation) were a married couple when they began work on a series of YouTube stopmotion shorts centred on a tiny souvenir seashell with a single, googly eye and two even tinier feet. In the intervening years, during which Marcel the Shell became a suitably small Internet craze, the pair broke up, but they've reunited - at least creatively - for a big-screen expansion of the shorts, which usefully folds in some of its makers' own backstory. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On presents as the most personal-seeming American animation since the stick-figure masterworks of the great Don Hertzfeldt; Fleischer Camp appears on screen as a version of himself, but even when he's not there, you sense tender hands and concerned faces are only just out of shot. The animation doesn't erase the palpably strong human elements and emotions in play. As we join or rejoin him, Marcel (again given voice by Slate) is pottering round an empty AirBnB rental, having seen family and friends move on. (Its owners emptied the home of anything non-generic after parting ways.) The house seems even bigger for being inhabited by two tiny seashells; Marcel's sole remaining relative is a frail grandmother (Isabella Rossellini) whose tumbles and bouts of memory loss suggests she's not long for this world. His only non-shell confidant is Fleischer Camp, who's moved into the property after a break-up of his own and suggests making a documentary about Marcel's life to pass the time. Both the actual Fleischer Camp and the character of "Dean Fleischer Camp" see in Marcel a symbol of life's fragility: the shell's as much a vessel as any young child, and a lot of time, love and energy has evidently been poured into these tiny shoes. As a result, Marcel - like a hardy child - has endured his creators' real-life break-up, whatever backlash the Internet can throw at a stopmotion conch, and the enforced separations of the past few years. I started sobbing five minutes into Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, and remained damp-cheeked throughout much of what followed.
Some of that, granted, was cry-laughter; the movie's as funny as it is quietly profound. You come this way expecting gags of scale, and certainly you get them: here's Marcel sobbing under a mansize tissue that fits him like a winter duvet. The script, by Fleischer Camp, Slate and Nick Paley, gets comic mileage out of our tiny hero's idiosyncratic way of expressing himself. (On his Italian-sounding grandmother, for example: "She's not from here. She's from the garage, hence the accent.") Mostly, you spend the film marvelling at the invention of its worldbuilding - how Fleischer Camp finds another world within our world, something akin to a doll's house or a Womble's den. Working to shell scale, an asthma inhaler can stand as a slide, a pillbox as a row of cupboards; a china teacup serves double duty as a mollusc hot tub. So far, so Aardman, you might say. What's completely new - and very clever - is an extra layer of postmodern media-savvy that doesn't obscure the film's depth of emotion. Fleischer Camp layers those initial YouTube clips into the action, allowing Marcel to both register astonishment at the online interest and, later, to parlay this new-found celebrity into a 60 Minutes profile. (In the meantime, there is passing debate over the extent to which Dean the documentarist should intervene in his subject's life.) It feels like a lockdown phenomenon: domestic, introspective, the result of much housebound tinkering, a certain sadness visible in the corner of its eyes. (One reason Marcel and Dean get along so well: they've both seen loved ones disappear.) Yet what it's getting at - and it's going for more than surface cutesiness, clearly - is vast and universal. I spent a good hour trying to figure out what Slate's voicework, with its lazy SoCal drawl, reminded me of, and it's the girl-narrator of The Orb's "Little Fluffy Clouds": it has the same dreaminess, the optimistic openness to the elements. "There's fountains in the lakes!," Marcel gasps, on an afternoon drive around humdrum L.A. parks. This is a far bigger world than we generally allow ourselves to consider on a daily basis, and there is much within it that bears marvelling at. I'm very glad Marcel has finally arrived on these shores to remind us of that, even if the film bearing his name often feels too delicate, too special, to bear screening in the sorry heart of the modern multiplex.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is now playing in selected cinemas.