Release: Friday, June 24, 2022 (limited)
Written by: Dean Fleischer Camp; Jenny Slate; Nick Paley
Directed by: Dean Fleischer Camp
Starring: Jenny Slate; Dean Fleischer Camp; Isabella Rossellini; Thomas Mann; Rosa Salazar; Lesley Stahl
For a movie whose star stands a whopping one-inch tall, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On packs a sizable emotional punch. A runner-up at the 95th Academy Awards in the Best Animated Film category, this gentle reminder of the importance of friendship, community and bravery in the face of uncertainty finds the little guy really coming out of his shell as he tries to reunite with his extended family.
Shot in stop-motion and at basically ankle-height, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On acts as a continuation of a series of YouTube short films featuring the talkative, inquisitive little mollusk but it ups the ante in terms of the challenges he faces and territory he has to cover. At his size he obviously has to deal with the physical obstacle course of navigating ordinary household objects — the laundry room is a particularly treacherous place — but this is also a journey of self-discovery that will require him to face some of his biggest fears, a prospect that may sound cliché but is handled in surprisingly mature and interesting ways.
Once part of a bustling community of shells, Marcel, whose whispery, childlike voice is rendered in a seemingly impossible pitch by SNL alum Jenny Slate, now lives only with his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini) and his pet lint Alan. They reside in an Airbnb whose previous occupants (Thomas Mann and Rosa Salazar) fought so much Marcel and company came up with designated fall-out shelters to retreat from the chaos. Unfortunately that plan backfired during a particularly bad blowup and the group got split up. Since then the two have managed to eke out a quiet if lonely existence, spending their days in the garden and their nights in front of the TV sharing a mutual admiration for 60 Minutes host Lesley Stahl.
Our way into this world is through aspiring filmmaker Dean (Dean Fleischer Camp) who has just rented the place following some turmoil in his own life. Empathetic to his housemate’s situation but also impressed by his resourcefulness and positivity he decides to film Marcel’s daily activities and uploads the footage to the internet, which then goes viral. Complications arise when Marcel reaches out to his rapidly growing fanbase for help in tracking down his family — a development that ends up bringing new levels of stress and danger to their doorstep.
The pitfalls of the internet may not be as topical a theme as it was when Marcel first debuted on YouTube, but the concept opens up the movie in ways that are unexpectedly affecting. As the national media get involved — even the 60 Minutes crew reaches out with a request for an interview — Marcel grows more resistant to the idea of allowing more strangers into his life and possibly destroying what little he has left. Yet Connie, ever a beacon of wisdom, urges her grandson to embrace the opportunity for personal growth and to live a life that’s meaningful.
The collaborative screenplay (by Camp, Slate and Nick Paley) is surely heartwarming but the craftsmanship takes the experience to another level. Scaled down to proportions that are amusing but also practical and lifelike (where else are you going to find tennis balls being repurposed as vehicles, or the muzzles of champagne bottles functioning as upscale furniture?) Marcel’s world is the beautifully ergonomic result of some clearly painstaking effort — one careless bump of an elbow or a knee and the whole scene, the whole world falls apart. The minutiae of stop-motion animation is a labor of love that puts to shame some of the most elaborately detailed CGI showdowns.
The aesthetic makes it tempting to describe Marcel the Shell with Shoes On as a playful thing destined to be limited to a younger audience. But just as there are new things to discover in the nooks and crannies of just about every shot, there is an undercurrent of melancholy, even darkness to the story — to a few of Marcel’s pithy observations about the world around him. The dialogue is as witty as it is incisive, like a precocious child unaware of their own impact.
While there is some drag to the running time and some of the plot points feel rushed, the filmmakers justify the big-screen treatment by making Marcel’s journey a universal experience, one of human emotion and connection rather than just a series of cutesy questions and observations remarking on his diminutive stature. There’s significant growth for our protagonist, which seems a weird thing to say about a shell, but there you go.
Moral of the Story: I was expecting to get along great with the Marcel the Shell movie; I was not expecting to be moved as deeply as I was by it. A beautiful, bittersweet little adventure that has something to offer viewers of all ages.
Running Time: 80 mins.
Quoted: “My cousin fell asleep in a pocket and that’s why I don’t like the saying, ‘everything comes out in the wash,’ because sometimes it doesn’t. Or sometimes it does and they’re just like a completely different person.”
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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com