The Friendly Film Fan Discusses A24’s Feature Adaptation of the Early 2010s YouTube Shorts.
Late in the year 2010 – October 16, to be exact – one video creator named Dean Fleischer-Camp uploaded to YouTube (and Vimeo) a short mockumentary-style film about a little mollusk shell named Marcel, who wore Tennis Shoes and was voiced by comic and future genre star Jenny Slate. Marcel used toenails as skis, wore lentils as hats, and drug around a piece of lint on string to have as a pet, with future openness towards having a dog join the family. The short, running 3 minutes and 22 seconds in total, quickly became a viral hit, and now sits at 32 million views. In fact, it was such a success that a second 4-minute short featuring the character was made and released one year later, with a third to follow three years after that. The two sequels didn’t quite garner as much attention as the original, however, dropping from 32 million to a rough final estimate of 11 million views for the immediate sequel, with the trilogy closer bowing out at a mere 4.6 million. Since October of 2014, Marcel the Shell has not appeared on any screens or in any other works apart from those shorts, until director Dean Fleischer-Camp dropped a feature-length adaptation/sequel to the shorts at the Telluride Film Festival in September of 2021. Its script was written by Fleischer-Camp, Jenny Slate, and Nick Paley, who all worked on the story with Elisabeth Holm. And perhaps most importantly, it was a hit. The feature was then quickly snatched up by indie powerhouse studio A24 and given a summer 2022 release, limited starting June 24, and gradually expanding in more markets until its nationwide release, which is due on July 15 of this year. Whether or not the box office will reflect people’s general nostalgia or interest in the property is anybody’s guess, but for movie fans, and especially for families, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is likely to be one of their favorite summer experiences.
While there’s not much in the filmmaking itself to surprise, subvert, or challenge audiences in terms of sheer creativity, this new feature-length adaptation of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is every bit as fun and funny as the shorts on which it is based. Jenny Slate once again excels as the titular character, her voice absolutely perfect for the sort of high-tone childlike comedy aspect of the film, but more than capable of selling its lower moments as well. And, of course, the mockumentary-style format is perfect for telling this sort of story in just this sort of way. As Marcel moves around the home, one can feel the ingenuity that went into crafting not just the character’s personality, but the ways in which his actions reflect that. (He’s also just as adorable as ever, so there’s that.) These are all things that worked before, and they work just as well – if not better – here.
What’s different this time around, what with the longer runtime and more room to breathe, is that the film is also full of aching, tugging, occasionally wrenching heart. The emotional undercurrent of Marcel’s journey to find his long-lost family after two years of separation sings with heft and gravity. There’s a pathos here about shell communities and how they came to be, and within that pathos lies an intimate story not only about Marcel seeking his literal family, but about filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp coming to grips with what’s become of his own. A24 has always been pretty good about using creative and outlandish stories to tell personal tales of grief, love, loss, pain, and all sorts of other things, but in Marcel, those personal tales are the driving force of the entire film. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On isn’t so much about the adventure aspect as it is about the reflection upon it – how long it can take, how impatient one can become, how frustrating it can be to feel so far from the goal line. Too few adventure films explore just how tiresome for their protagonists the adventure can really be, the toll it can take on whatever hope one began with, eventually leaving one resigned and burnt out. But that’s the thing about indie adventure stories, isn’t it? Whatever resignation the character feels, there is always hope that remains, and Marcel understands this without calling overt attention to it.
The one thing that can be said about Marcel in terms of having any flaws at all is that its technical presentation doesn’t do a lot to stand out from the shorts on which it’s based. In fact, the entire movie can sometimes feel as if it was constructed specifically for an online space, unlike another YouTube/comic sensation – Bo Burnham – whose movie Eighth Grade (also an A24 film) tackles the culture of the internet without ever feeling as if it may have been constructed via the internet. To that end, the filmmaking itself could have used a little more heft in terms of the ways in which some scenes are shot, but in keeping with the style of its source material, it does ground the viewer in a familiar setting, so it’s a drawback easily forgiven, and unlikely to bother anyone not actively attentive to those kinds of things.
In the end, there’s not a whole lot to say about Marcel’s latest adventure that hasn’t already been said and no corner of his world left unexplored by interested parties. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On may not be as poetic as Moonlight or as creative as Everything Everywhere All at Once, but it is every bit as worthy and reverent of the A24 logo in its opening credits as those are. (And truthfully, what movie can say the same thing about either of those other two?) This summer is chock full of huge releases from a lot of major players in the studio system, but it may be A24 who walks away the victor of the indie scene in 2022, what with that second mentioned film and this. Whatever the case, viewers would remiss to miss this one in the wake of the other three major releases this weekend. Sure, Marcel likely won’t blow your mind, but it’s more than worth whatever time you have to give it. What a lovely, heartwarming experience.
I’m giving “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” an 8.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Breaks Down the Director’s AppleTV+ Dramedy.
Cooper Raiff is moving up on independent film scene. On the one hand, many film aficionados consider him to be the next great auteur filmmaker, a true millennial’s version of a Richard Linklater with the writing sensibilities of Mike Mills. On the other hand, although many others do admit to admiring his efforts and seeing the work he does as beneficial to the scope of American popular movie culture, they also think the 25-year-old may be a little in over his head with his sophomore effort. Cha Cha Real Smooth, an AppleTV+ movie and bona fide Sundance sensation which sold to the service for $15 million in January, finds the Shithouse director operating at a larger level than with his debut (also a Sundance hit), operating with a higher budget and a more comprehensive story, if not a holistic one.
The charms of Cha Cha are simple, almost deceptively so if one’s eye isn’t trained to spot just what makes the movie so damn likeable, but nonetheless effective. Cooper Raiff’s charisma as lead character Andrew is simply undeniable as he navigates his character’s life post-college, wondering if he’ll go anywhere he actually wants to go or do anything that’s meaningful to him. He wanders around from space to space, never holding back anything in thought or practice, often to the warmth of others but occasionally to his own detriment. Early on in the film, he plans to follow his ex-girlfriend out to where she lives so he can be with her, despite not really seeming all that passionate about it. His post-school life, like many others’, has turned him into a wanderer with no real sense of what his purpose is, so he seeks it in other people, most evidently in his relationship to his younger brother. Conversely, Dakota Johnson’s Domino, a down-spirited mom with an autistic daughter, who seems to be holding so much inside with her husband absent on a case in Chicago, knows exactly what and who is most meaningful to her, and is at the point in her life where going where she wants would mean having to give part of her life up that she’s worked so hard to build and to foster as a purposeful thing. Spontaneity isn’t really in her vocabulary, nor is freedom from obligation. When the two meet at a bar mitzvah, the unlikely friendship they form feels as though the need between the two of them could blossom into something more meaningful for both, but Cha Cha isn’t especially interested in romancing you. Instead, it hopes to explore how love is far from as simple as falling into it, as much as one might want to. Wants can only take a human being so far before needs get in the way, and having the two collide for even a brief time is far more special than only ever having one or the other. Rather than being solely about finding purpose, the film also finds the beauty in releasing oneself of it.
As Andrew takes on a job as a party starter for the bar mitzvahs he attends (bar mitzvahs that Domino and her daughter also happen to be at, mostly), he takes on a second task, watching Lola – that’s Domino’s daughter – so that Domino can go out, be away, experience freedom not from obligations or responsibilities, but from purpose. Domino’s entire purpose to this point has been raising Lola, caring for Lola, ensuring Lola’s safety and happiness, so much so that she never seemed to think about doing the same things for herself. As Andrew and Lola (played by scene-stealer Vanessa Burghardt) become closer over time in one of the film’s sweetest subplots, Andrew too begins to feel closer to Domino, but that closeness isn’t reciprocated in quite the way Andrew may wish it to be, though Domino certainly isn’t averse to the closeness Andrew so clearly wants. But if Domino is the purpose Andrew seeks, it’s born of passion. Andrew being the escape from purpose that Domino needs and come to accept is born of love. This is what makes Cha Cha so special, beyond it simply being a more technically proficient film than Shithouse (it’s smoother, it feels more complete, the writing is that little bit better, etc.).
To understand the dichotomy between passion and love is not so much a challenge in practice as it is a tough thing to translate in storytelling. Writing that conflict with nuance so that no one seems the villain or the hero is such a difficult thing to do in moviemaking, especially when absent parties to the film’s main conflict – such as Domino’s husband – could so easily be made the villains or the ones our protagonist must overcome. The only thing there is to overcome in Andrew or Domino’s lives is their individual unwillingness to accept what they need unless they can get it from each other, and Cooper Raiff’s thoroughly nuanced script seems to understand near-perfectly that what each of them truly need is to pursue those needs of their own accord, not simply vicariously through other people.
Cha Cha Real Smooth may not be the strongest film of the year thus far or even the best thing AppleTV+ has ever put out, but it is proof positive that the service knows exactly what it’s doing when it comes to acquisitions and that Cooper Raiff – however one feels about this film as a follow-up to Shithouse – is certainly heading in the right direction as a filmmaker. Directionally, the film does sometimes get away from him a little bit, but the writing and performances bring it all back by the end. He has all the talent he needs to eventually become one of the indie greats, and the more tools he has at his disposal, the better. It’s fairly rare to see someone so in the spirit of Linklater continue to be more than simply a pale imitation of the Dazed and Confused scribe, and Raiff’s personal spin on the stories he tells is a record I want to keep on listening to for a little while longer.
I’m giving “Cha Cha Real Smooth” an 8.9/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.