After so much bad news in the past – oh, it’s been a while – many viewers might be in the mood for a little sweeter, sweeter, and nicer entertainment. Step into the adorable and charming Marcel the Shell (Jenny Slate), a one-eyed, childish anthropomorphic shell living in an Airbnb with her grandmother, Connie (Isabella Rossellini).
These are the only two shells left in the house after a devastating upheaval that tore their community away from them when the couple (Rosa Salazar and Thomas Mann) who lived in the house split up, accidentally taking Marcel’s family and friends away. . But these two tiny creatures have since learned to survive, making the most of their microscopic world in creative ways.
Many wonders and punchlines flow from their makeshift solutions, and it never seems to get old in “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On”, which premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. One of the many Airbnb tenants who Stopped at Marcel is a recently separated filmmaker, played by the film’s real-life director, Dean Fleischer-Camp. As he begins to record Marcel’s world, the filmmaker introduces Marcel to an online audience and he quickly builds an audience. Using his viral fame in earnest, Marcel uses his platform to find his family and reunite them.
Fleischer-Camp – who worked on the story with Slate, Nick Paley and Elisabeth Holm – expands the established world for the first time in his three previous shorts starring Marcel the Shell with a feature film deeper than the premise can to appear. On one level, there’s a character development challenge where the filmmakers had to come up with solutions to problems, like how does an inch-tall shell get oranges from the trees? The next hurdle is how the filmmakers use the stop-motion animation process to create visual illusions, like making a small seashell walk and changing its surroundings. But how do you use a small seashell to talk about grief, loneliness and loss?
Fortunately, the team behind “Marcel the Shell with the Shoes On” answers these questions with an open heart and a sense of childish play. The music of Disasterpeace bounces back with Marcel’s tiny footsteps with a heightened sense of joy and sadness. Fleischer-Camp and cinematographers Eric Adkins and Bianca Cline recreate a low-budget documentary-style type of film – think of blurry shots or ones that focus during an interview. It’s a bit of a meta to watch the movie version of Fleischer-Camp do the project on its own while the live version does the movie with a bigger team of collaborators.
As the soul of our star shell, Slate gives a wonderful performance, expressing Marcel’s nonstop questions, both poignant and inane, with a genuine sense of curiosity. It’s the kind of heartfelt performance that’s reminiscent of a Pixar movie. Marcel is spirited when he shows the Fleischer-Camp camera around the house, protective when it comes to Connie’s well-being and rarely frustrated enough to make a cutting point at Fleischer-Camp’s guilt of help him. As Connie, Rossellini is a calming force in Marcel’s life; his voice is reassuring and knowing. Although she can be forgetful, she encourages Marcel to pursue opportunities that could lead them to reunite with their family.
How does a talking one-eyed man get the audience’s attention for a feature film? It turns out that humanizing Marcel is more than giving him ironic lines and silly contraptions to enable him to obtain food. It is about making him live human experiences like loss and loneliness. These moments elicited as many reactions from the festival crowd as any punchline, including sniffles and tears. When Slate’s childish character grapples with this kind of pain for the first time, the result is indeed heartbreaking.
But at the end of the movie, it feels like the cinematic equivalent of a hug. It’s heartwarming and joyful because even the saddest moments don’t last long. There are always more adventures, more jokes and more songs to sing for little Marcel the Shell and his new audience: us.