It’s hard to imagine anyone not being delighted by Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, writer and star Jenny Slate’s triumphant movie expansion of the internet sensation that began as a short film and quickly gained cult status before being parlayed into additional short films, a book and now a whimsical and wistful feature film co-written and directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp (who also co-stars), Slate’s ex-husband and creative partner.
As one-half the creative force behind the film, the gifted comedienne is also the voice of one Marcel the Shell, a tiny, one-inch shell with a childlike tone, petite sneakers and one googly eye (experiencing a renaissance this year with both Marcel and Everything Everywhere All at Once) rendered in stop-motion animation amidst the real world of a sprawling Airbnb, home to Marcel, grandmother shell Connie (Isabella Rossellini) and pet lint Alan.
Marcel land Connie have developed remarkably ingenious routines for accomplishing their daily activities, which include a contraption involving an electric mixer to obtain fruit from a tree and a tennis ball as rolling vehicle of sorts, and entertain themselves by cooking and gardening, a pursuit on which aging Connie spends much of her time. The film’s supremely enjoyable opening sets up the duo’s warm relationship and their daily routines, including a notable obsession with their favorite television program, 60 Minutes, never to be missed.
Enter Airbnb owner and documentary filmmaker Dean (Fleischer-Camp), who discovers Marcel and embarks on a documentary chronicling the tiny hero’s life and routines, which quickly go viral and establish a legion of social followers. Just like that, Marcel is a household name, and soon enough, Lesley Stahl herself comes calling for an interview.
With Dean’s encouragement, this public notoriety provides Marcel the opportunity to reveal the quite poignant—and it’s very touching—tale of a lost family, of parents and relatives and friends accidentally transported and misplaced when the home’s former residents divorced and inadvertently took an entire community of shells with them. Since that fateful night, Marcel and Connie have lived alone, heartbroken.
The more that is gradually revealed the more the picture’s true agenda emerges, which considers the melancholy of loneliness related to powerlessness in the face of family separation and loss of friendship and community, and the need to regain one’s place in the world through such powerful bonds. To say the picture’s climax is moving would be an understatement; the screening I attended was awash in tears of joy.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is innovative, spirited, very funny and deeply affecting. In its deceptively childlike way it is genuinely life affirming and speaks to the better angels of human—seashell—kindness.