Live action animation about Marcel, a 1-inch mollusc who lives with his grandmother and their pet ball of lint, Alan. A documentary filmmaker brings hope of finding their long-lost family. A feel-good movie with a difference.
Have you ever heard the phrase “with a child’s heart”? The first time I ever heard it was through the lyrics of an old pop song:
With a child's heart
Go face the worries of the day
With a child's heart
Turn each problem into play
No need to worry no need to fear
Just being alive makes it all so very clear
It's a lesson post-Covid that we could all stand to live by. A new film for children, distributed by A24, reminds us all to see the world with the same kind of heart.
In 2010, out of boredom at a wedding, comedian/writer Jenny Slate created Marcel the Shell alongside her friend and director Dean Fleischer Camp. With an endearing, distinctive voice and Chaplin-esque shoes, the one-inch-tall shell took YouTube by storm, earning millions of fans of all ages around the globe, leading to two online shorts and a New York Times bestselling book.
The adorable little guy, voiced by Slate, now makes his way to the big screen in a live action, stop-motion feature film. Marcel carves out a colorful existence with his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini), and their pet lint, Alan. Once part of an eccentric community of shells, they now live alone as the sole survivors of a mysterious tragedy. However, when a documentary filmmaker (played by Fleischer Camp) discovers them, the short film he posts online brings Marcel millions of passionate fans, as well as unprecedented dangers and a new hope of finding his long-lost family.
"Marcel the Shell with Shoes On" is about so much more than an internet sensation gone viral. It places a glaring spotlight on the pros and cons of sharing your life online, while representing caregivers who have lost loved ones unexpectedly and find themselves wondering how life will continue to flourish without them. Slate and Camp get even deeper when addressing the manner and lengths a child will go to protect themselves when not feeling safe in their own home.
The crystal-clear precision of the stop-motion animation in "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On" seamlessly melds with the live-action material and is fascinating to behold. But my favorite part was watching “60 Minutes" host Lesley Stahl infiltrate the pivotal interview reuniting Marcel with his community and the glee surrounding Connie and Marcel in the process. It really does speak to the child’s heart of even the most cynical of adults.
Marcel’s physical aesthetic of having one eye, a shell for a body and a never-ending perseverance is simultaneously contagious and admirable. Yet, the poetic justice and license of including Philip Larkin’s poem The Trees drives the dramatic thrust of this story, summing it up in one fell swoop:
The signs of newness are also sewn into what has died away. Everything changes all the time. I love being alive, especially in the late spring, when the flowers return again. But you can’t enjoy the daffodil without honoring what has died so it can regrow. If you want to really grow, you must be able to know and allow for what change really looks like and feels like.
"Marcel the Shell with Shoes On" will make your spirit soar and remind you to enjoy those you love, inhale a bit of fresh air, and respect the earth every second as though it were your very first time. It's a reminder to embrace all the stages of grief and see our dark chapters as changes that somehow make us better on the other side.
Carla Renata, Roger Ebert.com
Cast Away made you feel affinity with a volleyball; Everything Everywhere All At Once made you feel existential about a couple of rocks; now get ready to feel emotional about a shell. Adapted from the viral video shorts of the same name, Marcel The Shell With Shoes On performs a minor miracle of filmmaking. If a tiny talking invertebrate exoskeleton can make you cry, is there anything cinema can’t do?
It could so easily be a proposition to dismiss. Marcel, and the fanciful world he inhabits, are almost aggressively twee — a cutesiness the filmmakers happily lean into, from co-writer/co-creator Jenny Slate’s adorably childlike voice as Marcel, to the shell’s big single-eyed innocence, to the flagrant sweetness of the script. (“Guess why I smile a lot?” Marcel offers at one point. “Because it’s worth it.”)
But there is more to this film than just being extremely adorable. Apart from anything else, it is a thrilling testament to the power of animation. There’s nothing flashy about the traditional stop-motion techniques used here — basic hand-drawn lines denote smiles, for example — but the way it blends seamlessly into live-action footage makes it feel excitingly authentic, no acclimatisation required. Crisp macro cinematography and natural light gives the whole thing an organic texture. Visually, it’s a genuine one-of-a-kind.
That all injects a huge amount of pathos into the character of Marcel. As absurd as it sounds, you start to feel protective of this tiny little shell almost immediately; you care. If the animation takes you most of the way there, the delightful performances from Slate and others complete the spell. Dialogue is conversational, and seemingly semi-improvised, especially if the generous laughter from director Dean Fleischer Camp (who plays a semi-fictional version of himself, hovering on the edges of the frame) is anything to go by.
Yet despite the loose approach and gentle pace, the script (by Slate, Fleischer Camp and Nick Paley) feels thoughtfully crafted. Much like last year’s Brian And Charles, another deeply uncynical mockumentary, Marcel embraces whimsy but is anything but shallow. There is real character depth here, through both laugh-out-loud silliness (“She’s from the garage, that’s why she has the accent,” Marcel explains of his grandmother’s heritage, in an oddball bit of worldbuilding) and through the thematic richness of grief, loneliness, family. Marcel wears his heart on his sleeve, but his limited understanding of the world does not equate to stupidity: when he becomes an internet hit, with TikTokers dancing on his front lawn, he is immediately wise to the hollowness of fame. “It’s an audience,” he says, gravely. “It’s not a community.”
That sense of connection feels like the thrust of the whole project. Slate and Fleischer Camp have taken what started out as an in-joke and turned it into a paean for finding your tribe. The kid-friendly vibe might put some off, but open yourself up to Marcel and you, too, could find yourself openly weeping at a stop-motion mollusk.
Funny, profound, weird, sad, and gorgeously constructed — Marcel is a true original, liable to melt even the most cynical heart. A very special shell indeed.
By John Nugent, Empire magazine,