Even though Marcel The Shell With Shoes On is not the eponymous hero’s first rodeo, it’s assuredly his greatest adventure to date, with an even bigger narrative scale and emotional scope than before. The gregarious, one-inch tall, one-eyed seashell sporting a childish voice and tiny tennis shoes was first introduced to us through YouTube shorts chronicling his daily routine and witty, innermost thoughts, tickling our funny bones and warming our hearts. Now co-creator/director Dean Fleischer Camp and co-creator/Marcel voice Jenny Slate broaden the miniature mollusk’s origins and world in a live-action/stop-motion-animated hybrid film, gifting us with a life-affirming, super charming and sweet-natured journey. It’s a soothing balm unlike any other wholesome feature around.
Marcel (voiced by Slate) lives in a quiet suburban home without much human interference beyond a housekeeper’s weekly appearance. His encounters with the world at large are met with childlike enthusiasm, a thirst for knowledge and an out-of-the box imagination. His days are spent literally bouncing around the house in a tennis ball used to traverse the sprawling space. His bed is a slice of bread, and he has a pet lint ball named Alan. He’s also orchestrated a network of ropes and pulleys to reach high places, view the outside world and venture into the garden where his grandmother Connie (voiced impeccably by Isabella Rossellini) often works. There used to be more of his kind that resided in this humble abode, until a mysterious exodus occurred, leaving Marcel and Connie stranded and shocked.
Our peppy protagonist’s world changes once documentary Dean (Fleischer-Camp) visits the home after a breakup, hoping to throw himself into his work by capturing Marcel and his grandmother in their blissful habitat. The fledgling filmmaker is rarely seen, and is mostly heard when he and his subject comedically banter. Dean finds an enterprising, silly spirit to showcase in short films he uploads to the internet, making Marcel an unwitting celebrity sensation. Marcel’s snarky digs at the comments section of his videos are worth the price of admission alone. Moreso, Dean uncovers Marcel’s worries about his Nana’s frail, forgetful state, and his yearning to rescue and rediscover his community before he leaves him all alone. With urgency to fuel their quest, the pair set out to look for what’s missing—the friends, family and feelings left unfulfilled.
Sentiment is a prized commodity for a picture such as this, where laughter and poignancy frequently co-mingle. Fleischer-Camp, Slate and co-screenwriter Nick Paley (working from a story by Fleischer-Camp, Slate, Paley and Elisabeth Holm) layer in tenderness along with highly comedic scenarios and dialogue minus any sense of desperate, cloying, or treacly twee— a true feat for a film that runs high on sweetness and charm. The long-running gag involving Marcel ribbing Dean’s dog, who loves to encroach on Marcel’s turf, is hilarious, as are many of the follies he encounters both at home and on the road. The hijinks of a squirrel getting loose in the house offer an uproarious aside. Plus, it’s incredibly moving to see his tenacity, risk-taking and courage. The filmmakers convey both sad and happy tones, making the third act feel well-earned without becoming maudlin.
Through the teensy prism of this small shell’s tribulations and the documentary capturing those trials, creators Fleisher-Camp and Slate rather admirably and vulnerably open themselves up to examining their own marital fissure. It’s refreshingly embraced with brave, raw honesty. They thread the needle expertly through Marcel and Dean’s enlightened discussions about Dean’s recent romantic split and how that softly, subtly parallels Marcel’s quest to not fear the future. Paying heightened fictional reference to their real-life marriage dissolution works to the film’s advantage, giving the tiny protagonist’s heart-rending story larger depths.
In addition to its well-conceived, properly paced narrative, the aesthetic, auditory and animated aspects bring this universe to life. Cinematography from live-action DP Bianca Cline and stop-motion animation DP Eric Adkins is effused and poetically evocative. Academy aspect ratio (1.33:1) and documentary style photography amplify the exchange of intimacy and immediacy between subject and camera. Animators, taking cues from Slate and Rossellini’s perfectly pitched vocal inflections, give Marcel and Connie a wonderful expressiveness, both overt (like when they cry or blink) and nuanced (both in their physicality and how their mouths move). Composer Disasterpeace’s delicate undertones, along with some carefully curated soundtrack selections, complement narrative ebbs and flows.
Ultimately, Marcel’s clever creators reward our willingness to believe he and his world are real, while offering an opportunity to look at our own world from a different perspective. It seems ironic that a miniscule seashell who skates on dusty coffee tables, adores cerebral programming like 60 Minutes, and uses honey to walk on walls can generate such gargantuan amounts of pathos. But for a character with such a tiny footprint, his shoes leave a remarkably lasting impression.