New from Every Movie Has a Lesson by Don Shanahan: MOVIE REVIEW: Marcel the Shell With Shoes On

Image courtesy of A24 Films

MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON– 5 STARS

Don’t let the rudimentary aesthetic of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On cause you to overlook the ever-wide possibilities that come from simplicity. Plenty will look upon the title character, with his single eye and affixed high tops, and discount a seemingly inconsequential creation, especially compared to the pizazz possible with today’s technology. They will forget the magic that old school stop-motion animation can do when applied with earnest performance effort.

As soon as Marcel introduces himself for Dean Fleischer-Camp’s voyeuristic camera, the voice of Jenny Slate provides a stream of consciousness sharing undistilled opinions, neurotic thoughts, and a naive attitude not unlike Buddy the Elf from Elf. That little carapace tells it like it is with pluck to spare. The more you listen and watch Slate enliven this character, the more moving and extraordinary the miniature journey becomes.

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On slots itself as an origin story and continuation to Dean Fleischer-Camp’s hit YouTube short films. Once part of a thriving community of fellow shells, Marcel and his grandmother Nanna Connie (voiced by the sagacious Isabella Rosselini) are separated from the rest after the others were swept up among packed belongings during a breakup between a cohabiting human couple (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s Thomas Mann and Rosa Salazar of Alita: Battle Angel). The now-empty apartment has become a part-time Airbnb rental where Marcel and Nanna roam about the remaining furnishings and grounds. 

LESSON #1: THE INTRICACIES OF A HOME– Pause for a moment to examine this movie’s living space and your own. When Marcel the Shell With Shoes On opens on a laundry/mud room, a little tennis ball starts to move. Marcel has retrofitted it to become his “rover” for getting around in a speedy fashion compared to the non-existent stride length of his tiny feet. Watching Marcel give a tour of his domestic abode with all the treasure troves of valuable trinkets, commandeered items, and modified tools, it becomes fascinating to marvel at the intricacies of one’s home. Both here and in your own dwelling, look around at the specifics of how something fits alongside other items or how it functions for different tasks. In doing so, you’ll discover Marcel’s (and likely your own) personalized quirks and a tremendous range of resourcefulness. It’s amazing how many “things” become special and essential.

It is in these nooks and crannies where Marcel and Nanna have been discovered, so to speak, by Fleischer-Camp (playing himself) who has come to live in this house. Fascinated by the behavior he finds, Dean begins to interview Marcel and post the videos to YouTube. Their talks reveal Marcel’s greatest desire– the chance he and Nanna will be reunited with their lost family. Marcel and Dean’s growing social media stardom begins to spread the word and connect the threads to make such a reunion possible.

LESSON #2: SEE LIKE MARCEL– That naivety mentioned earlier comes from the agape eye of Marcel and how he sees the world. From treading outdoors to becoming a 60 Minutes superfan, he admires every stitch of his surroundings while still pushing forward to live a life of discovery. Scale comes in layers with Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. Framing enhances and reveals the character’s smallness as well as the mockumentary cushion of observation. Cinematographers Bianca Cline (Winter Thaw) and Eric Adkins (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) often zoom us right into the close-up details of Marcel’s gaze and the places he leaves his mark. Finding the zest to look at your existential place like Marcel is greatly urged as a lovely takeaway.

LESSON #3: THINK LIKE MARCEL– Ah, but the movie goes further than optical focus! Jenny Slate’s precocious enthusiasm gives us an unassuming character with highly developed senses of enjoyment and reflection. Life’s a stage and he’s performing a little, no doubt. That said, as an example of that next level of understanding, Marcel recognizes that fandom is one thing and genuine support is another on his climb towards clickbait celebrity. What’s happening for him is “an audience and not a true community,” and there’s a hint of anger there for the character. Nonetheless, it is from that headspace of raw emotion that Marcel tells his story with a flood of positivity that washes over negative threats. So much more connection over consumption is needed for the target demographic hopefully watching this film.

LESSON #4: DREAM LIKE MARCEL– In its simplicity, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On drills down to a quest of wants and needs. Marcel laments for the bigger picture to say, “I don’t want to lose everything for something.” Part of that “everything” is his aging grandmother. The timidity and fear that comes from caring for an elderly relative is very forward in this movie and addressed with remarkable dignity. Marcel’s anguish to help himself and Nanna Connie see their family again is palpable and completely relatable to us non-crustaceans. Basic companionship can cure such grief. Dean slowly morphs from passive observer to invested helper as a bridge to greater healing. 

There’s nothing abstract about that hopeful core created within this odd little movie. That is where the writers (including Camp, Slate, her Obvious Child collaborator Elizabeth Holm, and her Broad City editor Nick Paley) have greatly expanded the internet skit into a richer and complete modern fairy tale. Anything where a character is reading poetry from Philip Larkin rather than making fart jokes through gibberish, counts as an improved entertainment choice for impressionable children. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On will likely be your baby’s first A24 film (make sure it’s not their last, but wait a few years for the hard stuff), and it moves with the ingenuity and patience of cinema 100 years older than itself.

A movie paced in that way, brimming with character and mirth, happily forces busy kids and adults alike to slow down and take stock in whatever worldview they have, privileged or otherwise. You can never have too much of that warm and corrective contemplation nowadays. Marcel likes to say, ”Smile a lot because it’s worth it” and “I want to linger a little longer with you.” Gosh, you will too on both accounts.

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is emphatically wholesome to no end. Revealing so much wonderment in plain domesticity, this movie decorates the micro-ordinary in wildly unique ways worth celebrating. It may not be your children’s shiny new favorite movie for endless replay, but, when absorbed with receptiveness and appreciated for its singularity, Marcel the Shell With Shoe On will become a charming and formative right of passage experience held dear and passed down for generations to come.

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LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#1048)

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