There’s one word to describe Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, and it’s “delightful.” Okay, there are a few other words that come to mind: funny, innovative, wonderfully weird, tear-jerking, and surprising. If I had to sum up this review in a single word, though, “delightful” would more than do the trick. This word also epitomizes it’s the titular character in a nutshell… or whatever kind of shell that Marcel is. Even if there wasn’t a plot, it’d be more than satisfying listening to whatever pops into Marcel’s mind for 90s minutes.
I’ll admit that the Marcel shorts eluded me when they dropped on YouTube during the early 2010s. Perhaps I was too occupied rewatching Charlie the Unicorn. Of course, I was familiar with Jenny Slate, who co-created Marcel after devising his adorable voice at a motel. Marcel’s other creator is Slate’s ex-husband Dean Fleischer-Camp. This feature film reunites the former couple with Slate voicing the shoed shell and Fleischer-Camp getting behind the camera in more ways than one. In addition to directing, Fleischer-Camp plays the documentary filmmaker who discovers Marcel in an Airbnb. In another meta nod, it’s revealed that Fleischer-Camp’s character separated from his wife.
The film exists in one of those quirky universes where the discovery of an anthropomorphic seashell doesn’t attract any scientists or government officials. It’s just kind of accepted, although Marcel’s existence isn’t merely glanced over. The little shell becomes an internet celebrity with the public wanting more. Marcel is reluctant to be in the spotlight, fearing the exposure will disturb his aging grandma Connie (Isabella Rossellini). However, a 60 Minutes interview might be the key to finding Marcel’s long-lost family, who were accidentally taken away in a suitcase.
Marcel’s dialogue, which was highly improvised, possesses the authentic naivety of a child being interviewed on Kids Say the Darndest Things. For every seemingly random observation, though, Marcel has a golden nugget of wisdom to share. While the character is simple on the surface, the film is strangely profound. Marcel and Connie may be shells, but their rapport captures the all-too-relatable dynamic of a little kid looking after a parental figure with dementia. It would’ve been easy for a concept this odd to take a cynical approach, but Slate and Rossellini deliver two of the year’s sincerest performances. Yes, they’re voicing talking shells. And yes, they will make you shed a tear (or several).
Although we rarely leave the Airbnb, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On creates a world of its own where even an ordinary tennis ball can feel otherworldly. The film possesses the magic realism you might find in a Studio Ghibli project like My Neighbor Totoro or The Secret World of Arrietty. The most enchanting movies aren’t always the ones that transport you to realms where anything can happen. It can be just as bewitching peeling back a layer of reality, finding something extraordinary that was hiding in plain sight the entire time. The film also puts a fresh spin on the familiar animation trope of a small creature finding their family. While I won’t say if there’s a family reunion, Marcel does find the confidence to come out of his shell. He might inspire you to do the same.