“For my next trick,” says Joseph Cornell … “I have put the world into a box.” And when he opens the box, you see something dark and glittering, an orderly mess of shards, refuse, bits of junk and feather and butterfly wing, tokens and totems of memory, maps of exile, documentation of loss. And you say, leaning in, “The world!”

Michael Chabon, “Wes Anderson’s Worlds”

A new hardbound book stands up, cover out, the star of the show on our living room mantelpiece. It’s a large picture book (you know — “for kids”) illustrating seventy of the original 320 questions in Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions. A couple of favorites: “What news bursts forth from the leaves on those first days of spring?” “Why don’t they teach helicopters how to draw honey from the sun?”

The childlike inquiries throughout the book — imagine a particularly creative four-year-old who doesn’t want to go to sleep and so keeps asking questions — enkindle imaginations for inquisitive pre-schoolers and for adults who have sustained a childlike capacity for wonder (and for poetry). And the extraordinary art by Paloma Valdivia reminded a friend of mine of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, while it made me think of the complex, interlocking designs in Cartoon Saloon’s The Secret of Kells. Every turn of the page (some of which unfold into three-panel panoramas) reveals a variety of surprises. The more you notice the purposefulness in the playfulness, the more the pages speak to you of a meaningful world.

This was one of those rare occasions where Anne and I get a book from the library and, within moments of opening it, order a copy for our home library. We were absolutely dazzled by its playful shapes, its vivid colors, and its secrets which emerge if you pay attention to patterns and to the relationship between each question and each picture. It made us feel like children again discovering what would become a lifelong favorite. It felt like good medicine in hard times. It felt like relief.

One page, for example, features a camel bowing his head low to almost touch his nose to that of a tortoise. The text offers this exchange:

What’s hidden under your hump? said the camel to the tortoise.

And the tortoise asked: What talks are you having with the oranges?

This immediately reminded me of a story I had once written and illustrated for my mother’s birthday, in which a tortoise arrives at a birthday party, pops open his domed shell like the trunk of a car, and reveals that he is delivering the birthday cake.

I love this frame of mind whenever I find my way to it, either by the inspiration of another artist or in my own artmaking,. Such awakenings remind me that I once thought this way all the time — that these are, in fact, re-awakenings. And I liked thinking this way. I want to think this way more often. If I do, I will inevitably give it some form of expression. I want to invite the world to play with me in this way.

The same kinds of questions, the same kind of imagination, the same kind of joy emanates from the new film Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. 

If A24 doesn’t send this into theaters generously, they’re going to lose a lot on what I believe has the makings of a cult classic. This is movie magic on the scale of The Muppet Movie, with just as much heart and just as much humor. And, in its astonishing  extraordinary merging of stop animation and live action footage, it stands as one of the most remarkable achievements in animation I’ve ever seen.

Marcel at the window, wondering where he might find others like himself. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

Expanding on a series of short stop-animation videos that they began making and posting on YouTube back in 2010, filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp and actor Jenny Slate give their irresistibly charming character Marcel — a tiny, one-googly-eyed seashell who toddles around on little pink shoes and monologues without ceasing — his first feature-length adventure. And that’s really all you need to know: Marcel asks questions as ebulliently as a four-year-old. And that’s just the beginning of his childlike creativity: He also rigs up all kinds of inventive Rube Goldberg contraptions around the house for purposes of work and play, and often comes up with observations that resonate with wisdom. Every scene has a surprise that jabs a laugh from the audience, but there’s also a layering of subtle visual humor that will reward those who come back to pay closer attention. All of this sustains the characteristics of Marcel that Dana Stevens described (in Slate, no relation to Jenny) as the charm of those original videos: “Marcel possessed a distinctly uncorny optimism founded on admirable self-love. Marcel did not want to sell you a product or a dream; he just wanted to tell you about what he liked and share his world.”

While the movie unfolds effortlessly, as if Fleischer-Camp really did just turn on a camera to document the life of his new roommate, there’s a lot more going on here than there was in the viral videos.

Marcel emerges from his preferred mode of transportation. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

First, there’s a more ambitious look at Marcel himself, his history, and his environment. And moviegoers don’t need to see the earlier material — this film works perfectly as an introduction. As usual, he’s voiced by Jenny Slate (Zootopia, The Obvious Child), in the most perfect match of character and and actor since Jim Henson as Kermit the Frog: He sounds a bit like a three-year-old boy coming down with a cold — and yet there’s an irrepressible joy in that voice even when he’s expressing his deep sadness or melancholy. There’s a squeaky edge to his chatterbox style, but I have yet to hear from anyone who finds him annoying.

As Marcel tries to comprehend why anyone would make a movie about him, he finds himself explaining to others that a documentary is “like a movie but nobody has any lines and nobody even knows what it is while they’re making it.” It’s funny because it’s true. But it’s also fitting because the filmmakers weren’t working with a detailed screenplay. Much of the dialogue was improvised. It’s a remarkable thing to imagine: The filmmakers had to align Slate’s improv with the excruciatingly slow art of stop animation, and that they succeeded in a way that suspends our disbelief is nothing short of genius-level artistry.

To infuse all of this with such love and such conscience, well — that reminds me of a filmmaker I rarely ever mention when describing great filmmakers. Marcel is the kind of film that I suspect Jim Henson would have loved: It’s childlike, playful, hopeful and wise — and all of this without ever stooping to sentimentality. Its characters seem to have been brought to life with patience, attention, and love. Whether Marcel is navigating the house by steering his tennis ball “rover” down the stairs, climbing the walls with the help of honey on the soles of his shoes, zip-lining in an old sneaker, or sleeping on a soft slice of bread, walking his “dog” (a piece of lint on a leash), or just wondering about the wide world beyond his AirBnB, he’s always exactly right — a fully realized character.

Marcel and his grandmother share a quiet meal. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

Then there’s “Nana” Connie, Marcel’s grandmother, who invests her time in mini-gardening and in offering healthcare to injured neighbors. Voiced with exquisite tenderness and wisdom by Isabella Rossellini, Nana is immediately one of the great big-screen grandmas. If you’re very, very lucky, she’ll remind you of your own. She’s also proof that cartoon characters do not need to be wacky and flamboyant — she’s an endearingly soft-touch character, a voice of unhurried wisdom.

Plot? There are a few threads weaving in and out of one another until they all merge for a surprisingly satisfying conclusion (one that involves no villains, and relies on no violence whatsoever). There’s the fact that Marcel and and his grandmother were separated from their community in a sudden calamity, leaving them deeply scarred with loss. There’s the sacred ritual: Marcel and Connie faithfully attend to every episode of 60 Minutes, with Marcel asking Nana to “make the noise” of the shoe’s ticking-clock motif. (They stan reporter Leslie Stahl, a detail that may seem arbitrary at first, but it feels like inspiration by the end of the film.)

While Marcel and his grandmother are fans of Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes, they haven’t yet dreamed they’d ever be on the show themselves. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

A cast of supporting characters make their own marks, like some spiders who watch Marcel’s life as if he’s their favorite show, or the honeybee drunk on honey who has trouble understanding windows. There’s the fact that Dean himself — yes, the filmmaker — is in the AirBnb because his life’s been overturned by a breakup (interesting, since he and Slate broke up before they made this film together). When Marcel becomes an internet sensation — yes, the film weaves in the true-life details of the shell going viral — new possibilities open up for him to make meaningful connections, but new troubles develop as well (like selfie-hungry fans showing up on the lawn). And then there’s the fact that Nana Connie is getting older, which makes Marcel’s loneliness and vulnerability seem that much more worrisome.

The ways in which Marcel and Nana Connie make the most of their isolation should seem inspiring to audiences who endured the COVID lockdowns, and especially those creative viewers who have felt separated from essential communities and audiences. I wouldn’t call it a lockdown movie, but it feels like just the right movie for right now. Marcel declares, in what will probably become one of the most quoted lines by critics and fans, “I want to have a good life and to stay alive, and not just survive but have a good life.”

Nana Connie’s gardening provides an outlet for her creativity — and the filmmakers’ imaginations, too. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

And while the film’s makeshift narrative seems to have been improvised into being — unpredictable, meandering, and refreshingly unhurried — when it arrives at its stirring conclusion it seems as if every moment along the way was necessary, every scene important in contributing to its perfection. And as the credits roll, I find myself looking around in vain for a movie that it even vaguely resembles. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is an almost unclassifiable film: It’s not exactly for kids, but kids will love it. It’s not exactly a mockumentary, but it plays with documentary conventions. Neither comedy nor drama seem sufficient. It works as “a coming-of-age movie” as well as anything else. We are witnessing a formative season in a child’s life: Marcel’s heart swells with so much love that when much of what he loves is taken, he has a hollowness inside where we hear a spacious roar, wave upon wave of longing and grief.

Pondering Marcel’s pain, I’m reminded of Michael Chabon’s New Yorker reflections on the films of Wes Anderson. There, he writes,

The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research “childhood.”

There follows a program of renewed inquiry, often involuntary, into the nature and effects of mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence, failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief; the researcher learns their histories, and their bitter lessons, by heart. Along the way, he or she discovers that the world has been broken for as long as anyone can remember, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the ache of cosmic nostalgia that arises, from time to time, in the researcher’s heart: an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken. We call the moment at which this ache first arises “adolescence.” The feeling haunts people all their lives.

Fleischer-Camp incorporates stop animation and live action miraculously. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

Anderson observes that some “hunker down atop the local pile of ruins” and merely “make do.” Others react more aggressively, contributing to the brokenness like kids “running through piles of leaves.” But some strive in answer to “a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.”

While Chabon is thinking about Anderson’s young protagonists in films like Moonrise Kingdom, he might as well be describing Marcel. As if the filmmakers envisioned a sort of Wings of Desire for kids, the first part of the film (maybe half) focuses on getting to know how Marcel and Nana Connie live, how they see the world, what they’re capable of doing there, what they love. Then we spend the second half leaning into the longing, watching them take action with increasing urgency, participating in their striving to do something about that “vanished glory,” that “lost wholeness.” Marcel might just retreat into the hollowness of his shell. But, with coaching from his grandmother, he is not content to just “make do.” He and Nana make the most of their circumstances, make a new world in the crater of the old one — and then, they lean into the possibility of restoration, risking further heartbreak in pursuit of the dream of reconciliation.

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On shines with a particular soulfulness — at least for now — because it is as yet unconnected with any obvious marketing empire. It doesn’t appear to have franchise aspirations (although I would be first in line for a sequel). And there’s no apparent tidal wave of Marcel merch coming our way. If you catch a few clips in commercials, you might reasonably worry that a feature-length film of this stuff is too sticky-sweet. But I’m hypersensitive to sentimentality, and I think this is one of the most beautiful films of 2022. As Dana Stevens writes, “The script is almost diaphanous in its spareness, yet these minimally animated assemblages … convey an enormous complexity of feeling.”

Marcel, with his miniature musings, holds up a mirror in which we will recognize our own world, how it’s broken, how it might be healed. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

I suspect Marcel will become a favorite for those children and adults alike who make time for it. It’s already one of mine. Like the original Muppet Movie, the first LEGO Movie, Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, and Toy Story, it’s an original in which the storytelling is as strong as the style. At times, it even reminds me of Finding Nemo, my favorite Pixar film, for how its aesthetic beauty leaves me with the feeling that I’ve just awakened from a dream. Marcel’s world is an immersive environment that makes us more fully appreciate our own.

Just as I have learned more from Kermit the Frog about living a meaningful life than I have from most movie characters, I’m adopting Marcel as a mentor during dark times. I am accepting the challenge of Fleischer-Camp, Slate, and the poet Pablo Neruda. If I live in the pursuit of wonders as Marcel does, I will be less likely to retreat into my shell. He makes me want to embrace my own diminutive stature in the world, because in doing so I realize — or, better, remember — how vast the world of possibility really is. And, in spite of everything, how grateful I am to be a part of it.