“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” is part poignant, part absurd and all wonderful.
In the new film, now playing in theatres, the resourceful, one-googly-eyed sea shell with a pink pair of shoes, voiced by Jenny Slate, searches to find community after a family upheaval. Marcel may be a one-inch mollusk, but his experience of loss, grief and joy feels more human and authentic than most films starring, you know, actual humans.
In this shell’s eye view, we learn that Marcel lives in an Airbnb, once the home of an unhappily married couple, now a stop-over for tourists. When they split, Marcel’s extended family disappeared, possibly taken accidentally in the couple’s rush to leave the house and their relationship behind.
Marcel and his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini) remain, finding resourceful and often hilarious ways to survive and thrive in the mostly empty house.
When recently separated filmmaker Dean (Dean Fleischer-Camp, who directs and who co-created Marcel with Slate) and his curious dog move in, Marcel finds a friend and collaborator. Dean is taken by Marcel’s mix of curiosity (Have you ever eaten a raspberry?) and acumen and begins to document life in the Airbnb in a video he intends to post on YouTube. “It’s like a movie,” Marcel explains to Connie, “but nobody has any lines and nobody even knows what it is while they’re making it.”
As the video goes viral, Marcel wonders if this newfound fame can help him track down his family.
“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is shot documentary style, with beautiful stop-motion animation to bring Marcel and Connie to life. The star of the show is Slate’s heartfelt vocal performance, at once childlike and wise. Marcel is a singular character. Adorable, it’s as if he just wandered over from a Pixar movie, bringing with him personality to spare but also a level of self-awareness and empathy rarely played out on such a high level in family movies. It may be big screen entertainment about a mollusk, but it feels personal and intimate.
Rossellini brings warmth to Connie, in a performance that feels like a grandmother’s hug. Comforting and wise, and just a little bit forgetful, she is Marcel’s anchor and mentor. “Marcello, let’s forget about being afraid,” she says. “Just take the adventure.”
“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” takes a silly premise, one that could sit on the shelf next to other kid’s talking-creatures movies, and elevates it with a sense of humanity and the transformational power of friendship.
This one-inch-tall character punches way above his height.