There’s a new face in the field of feature-length animation as Marcel the Shell with Shoes On makes his big screen debut.
Stop-motion animation is a filmmaking method with more notable entries this year than others in recent memory, from visual effects artist Phil Tippett’s demented masterpiece Mad God on Shudder to Guillermo Del Toro’s upcoming Pinocchio adaptation. But both of those films have steep competition against Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, which is an adaptation from the children’s book and YouTube series by Jenny Slate and Dean Flesicher-Camp, and one of the most enjoyable movies of the year thanks to its gorgeous animation, stellar voice performance from Slate, beautiful visuals and heartwarming ideas about life.
In Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, the titular one-inch tall anthropomorphic shell is discovered by a documentary filmmaker named Dean (Flesicher-Camp) who is temporarily staying in the house-turned-AirBnb rental that Marcel and his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini) occupy without taking up too much space; Marcel in particular likes to collect small bits of food and little trinkets in which he finds value behind the walls in between helping Connie garden and assembling puzzles with her before the two end their nights watching 60 Minutes together.
This revelation compels Dean to ask Marcel if he could film a short documentary about him, to which the adorable shell agrees. The short is quick to become a viral sensation to the mollusk’s happiness, but with a certain sadness as well over the absence of the multitude of family members that disappeared following a mysterious incident. From there, Dean puts together a livestream for Marcel, where he asks the world to help him find his family, all the while the little shell finds himself juggling more issues than he ever expected, from the effects of his newfound celebrity to his grandmother’s ailing health.
But Marcel keeps an eager, hopeful face through it all, and his journey traverses down a plethora of avenues that open audiences’ minds to his perspective about a myriad of topics over the course of the movie’s funny, sweet script. Examples of this come when Marcel watches the YouTube comment section update in real time with more and more messages from fans by the second, only to tell Dean that he sees them as an audience rather than a community. Such a message is sure to enlighten viewers who have been pigeonholed into a chronically online presence through social media in the last two years.
Another example comes during a brief moment of uncertainty that sees Marcel ask his grandmother what will happen if everything about his life changes, to which she responds in the most comforting tone possible, “It will.” It is poignant yet honest about the truth that we all face change in our lives whether or not we want it to come, so it is best to let the alterations arrive and face them head on with optimism. And it’s with that, as well as an appreciation for the little things that Marcel uses to look at the world, which comes through when he describes how many times the trees and their leaves change color after being asked when he’s last seen his family.
And Jenny Slate gives Marcel a childlike excitement for life through her phenomenal voice performance that makes the little mollusk one of the most adorable protagonists in recent memory. Marcel reads the signs he passes while on a brief road trip with Dean with curious wonder, and throughout the movie asks him question after question about his personal life so matter-of-factly that it’s impossible not to laugh in endeared amusement.
The film also makes good use of its mockumentary visual style by animating Marcel and Connie in a real-world space that conjures awe through artful wide shots that rack into focus slow enough to emphasize the novel beauty and hard work that Marcel and company put into building his colony. Another element of the visuals that’s worth noting is the handheld camerawork that implements the direct cinema style of documentary filmmaking so that spectators feel like they’re flies on the wall of Marcel’s house watching his every move.
If there are any complaints to be had about Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, they are miniscule; the humor does distract from one of the film’s most sorrowful moments, albeit in only one instance. The stakes also feel low despite how big they are; because Marcel is such a lovely character, the last thing we as an audience should want is for his family to never be found. But the movie remains jovial and optimistic in tone as well as with its themes which remind audiences to make note of the fact that despite our differences, we are all connected as living beings on this earth by our place in the grand scheme of things.
Just watching Marcel use honey to walk on the walls to retrieve something from his nook or ice skate on dust that has accumulated on a coffee table is so joyous in its simplicity that audiences are left smiling ear to ear from the start to the finish of his big screen debut. The film is not only a needed reprieve from today’s news cycle, but also one that asks us to reflect on anyone we’ve missed connections with in addition to past goals we once thought were unattainable, and gives us the confidence to reach out to old friends and aim to achieve our dreams. If a one-inch tall mollusk can forge a wonderful life for himself despite his stature, then nothing is beyond our reach, and it’s that heartwarming message that makes Marcel The Shell With Shoes On the most wholesome movie of the year so far.