New from A Reel of One’s Own by Andrea Thompson: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2022: Marcel The Shell With Shoes On

When A24 goes kid-friendly, it does so in a fashion all its own. “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser in shiny new packaging, the kind of film that cinephiles can ditch the sitter for and just experience with their kids.

The main character is exactly as indicated, with title character Marcel (Jenny Slate at her most adorable) being a literal mollusk about an inch high with shoes and a single eye so expressive it’s straight out of a Pixar character. But “Marcel the Shell” has a kind of homemade indie charm that’s become more and more scarce since Disney’s monopoly has engulfed the storytelling business, to say nothing of the industry itself.

Anyway, Marcel is part of a tiny race of unique shells that live mostly unseen in various homes. How he was first noticed and befriended by the now Airbnb’s current occupant, played mostly offscreen by director Dean Fleischer-Camp as a version of himself in a fun meta twist, is left unseen. What matters is Dean has met and received Marcel’s permission to film him, and we get to see all of Marcel’s adaptations and habits that allow him to move around in a tiny slice of world so much bigger than him, which include using a tennis ball as transportation and putting honey on the bottom of shoes to climb walls.

The engaging and inventive mockumentary format is also how we learn Marcel’s heartbreaking backstory. He used to be a part of a whole village of family and friends, but when the couple who used to reside there divorced, Marcel found himself in every kid’s nightmare scenario. When the male half of the relationship left, he inadvertently took most of the other shells with him, leaving only Marcel and his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini).

But like many children naturally inclined towards happiness, Marcel has made the most of his circumstances and remains hopeful for not just survival, but a good life. Such a refusal to wallow can only be inspiring, and Marcel and Connie are devastatingly charming in their interactions with Dean, especially when Marcel is introduced to the Internet and the world outside.

Things begin to go awry when the short film Dean makes about Marcel goes online, as the audience Marcel gathers has a devastating and permanent effect on Connie, and Marcel begins to think twice about letting more of the world in and risking further negative change. Once determined to find his family, he risks almost total withdrawal out of fear of his fragile world breaking even more.

Yet break it does, and we ache with him as Marcel must face not only loss, but how he has become permanently affected by an isolation that will likely lead him to seek out periods of solitude for the rest of his life. But it is the warmth, and eventually, very real friendship between Marcel and Dean which will also endure alongside the heartbreak. And at a time when the world seems both smaller and terrifyingly large, “Marcel the Shell” feels like a soothing balm, an ode to taking the risk in the face of fear and even logic. Parts of the film may drag at times, but its emotional core is never less than razor sharp.

Grade: A-

from A Reel Of One’s Own

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