There are times when the world doesn’t make a lick of sense. And then there are times when it all comes together with the help of a one-inch-tall shell with one eye, shoes, and a whispery voice that supplies us with wisdom about our own lives from his perspective on the world around him. If you’ve never been fortunate enough to have watched the three Marcel the Shell with Shoes On short films, stop reading this immediately and go watch them. They are the marvelous creations of actor Jenny Slate (who provides Marcel’s voice and thoughts) and director Dean Fleischer-Camp, who also helms the new feature. Together they have somehow braided the spontaneous structure of improv with the very planned-out nature of stop-motion animation, turning it into a viral sensation that also works on a philosophical plane.
The first remarkable thing the film accomplishes is finding a way to explain the short films in the context of the greater story of Marcel and Dean, who met when documentary filmmaker Dean moved into an Airbnb after separating from his wife. This breakup is not the central focus of the movie, and although the way it weaves Dean’s relationship woes into Marcel’s world is subtle, it gets to the heart of Marcel’s capacity for empathy. Marcel’s world is also in flux. He lives in the house with his grandma Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini); they are the only two members of their family left after the couple that once occupied the house broke up, presumably accidentally packing up Marcel’s other family members in the rush to get out. Marcel is clearly lonely, but his outlook on life is upbeat and his curiosity about the outside world is endless. He’s also fiercely protective of his grandmother, a fact that he uses as an excuse for not taking chances or seeking bigger adventures.
Dean films their encounters, interviews both Marcel and Connie, and edits together a couple of short films that he puts online, resulting in an insane amount of attention (these are the original shorts). The filmmakers have repackaged the cultural and media response to the original shorts as the world taking notice of Marcel and his struggle to find his family, and eventually “60 Minutes” reaches out with interest in doing a piece on the shell that includes a serious investigative search for Marcel’s extended family. To say more would be criminal, but Marcel’s reaction to finally getting his wish isn’t initially what you think it might be because of his concerns regarding Connie, whose memory isn’t what it used to be and whose energy levels are waning.
Having seen it twice now, I think Marcel the Shell with Shoes On might be the most adorable film I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly one of the most heartfelt and emotionally sincere experiences I’ve had in the movies in ages, and at every turn, Marcel opens up some new corner of his world, our world, and even a world that rests somewhere in between. As beautiful as the film’s spirit is, it’s not a precious or overly cute exercise. Slate and Fleischer-Camp explore loss, connection, friendship, community and how we need all of those things to survive and thrive, no matter how small we are or feel. Slate’s voice forces us to lean into the screen ever so slightly and really listen to Marcel, whose wisdom sometimes comes in the questions he asks Dean or in his observations about seemingly meaningless things that we would easily overlook in our day-to-day existence.
But it’s also Marcel’s kind soul that pulls you in and gives you no choice but to become emotionally invested in this very funny and sweet piece. He’s genuinely puzzled and even a little hurt when he asks questions of Dean about his broken marriage and Dean doesn’t answer at first. He’s spent hours answering Dean’s sometimes quite pointed questions, and he rightfully expects friendly reciprocation. Some people may be suspicious of a PG-rated movie from A24, but the truth is, while the film is absolutely kid friendly, it is in no way a “kid’s movie.” There is nothing heightened about the animation, the emotions are real, and the tears you will undoubtedly cry will be wet. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a full-on character study of a friendship that will warm and break your heart in equal measure. And if you take your kids to see that god-forsaken Minions movie instead of Marcel this weekend, your kids will grow up to be monsters, if they aren’t already. (To clarify, if you take them to see both, that’s cool. But if you only see one, it has to be Marcel.) When the year is done, I suspect this will be one of my favorite films of the year.
The film is now in theaters.