Star Rating:

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Director: Dean Fleischer-Camp

Actors: Jenny Slate, Isabella Rossellini, Rosa Salazar

Release Date: Friday 17th February 2023

Genre(s): Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy

Running time: 90 minutes

Separated from his family of other shells, Marcel (voice of Jenny Slate) is interviewed by filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp (playing himself) and talks about his daily life, his grandmother Connie (voice of Isabella Rossellini) and his hopes of finding his family...

Based on a series of shorts, 'Marcel the Shell with Shoes On' is the kind of movie that persists along with the idea that it's just sometimes fun to sit and watch something being cute and funny. Profundity, a story, narrative arcs, whatever - they're all secondary. Sometimes, being cute is enough and the rest will follow, and when it does, it crashes on you like an awesome wave that you never saw coming at all. That's how 'Marcel the Shell with Shoes On' works. It presents itself as this quirky, almost cloyingly cute creature, full of wonder and childlike observations about the world. Yet, there are slips in this and sharper moments fully realised with hidden depths of meaning.

If there's a comparison to be made, and it's one that isn't really necessary, 'Marcel the Shell with Shoes On' has some common DNA with Aardman Studios' earlier works, like 'Creature Comforts'. There is a stop-motion animated creature in front of you, it is clearly unreal, it jerks and moves, yet it feels completely alive. The voice coming out of it is rich in humanity. You cannot help but be fixated on its warmth and familiarity, and that's how it snags you. The gentle humour in Jenny Slate's performance, Isabella Rosselini's rich tones and accents - which comes from the fact that she's from the garage, as observed by Marcel.

Like the shorts, 'Marcel the Shell with Shoes On' simply presents the character and has them talk direct to the camera with the sharp intakes of breath of a child, the meandering conversation, all of it. Yet, out of them, there is a depth and an eventual realisation of something more. Marcel and Connie are cut off from others of their own kind as a result of a traumatic breakup of the humans they lived in. The house in which they existed was turned into an Airbnb, and the other shells were taken away during the split. We later learn that Dean, the filmmaker who's capturing all of this, is himself recently split from a partner and trying to deal with being alone. What happens is what happens to most people - you have to be resilient and practical, and deal with what's what in front of you. In this case, Dean the filmmaker is staying at an Airbnb while looking for a new place to live and working on this documentary, while Marcel is concerned about Nana Connie and her advancing years.

Again, this might seem like it's emotionally manipulative or something underhanded, but it's all so natural and so alive that it never once reaches that. Instead, you're carried along with it, buffeted by the embrace of it all, and reminded of how connection and community are integral parts of our existence. It's no surprise that 'Marcel the Shell with Shoes On' was made during the pandemic. You feel its presence around the movie, not in its production, but rather in how it feels like it's a response and a meditation on disconnection. Everyone is disconnected, and even when Marcel becomes a viral hit, it's hollow. Nothing comes from online adulation. Nothing comes from random people hovering outside their home. Any kind of satisfaction or sustenance comes from real, emotional connections with the people around them. For a slight, ninety-minute stop-motion animated movie to grapple with something like that and to do it so well, to so keenly observe all of that, is something special.