'Marcel the Shell with Shoes On': A Whimiscal, Heartwarming Adventure
The idea of a film based on the Marcel the Shell with Shoes On series of web videos is a bit puzzling. The original shorts were posted online in the early 2010s, and were quite popular at that time, but it's not like it was screaming for a feature-length adaptation. However, it is clear that Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer Camp, the creators of the Marcel the Shell shorts, wanted to revisit the character on a slightly larger scale. But while the existence of this film is a bit surprising, it ends up being a lovely continuation of the character, and one of the most endearing films of the year.
Much like the original shorts, the film is presented in a mockumentary format. A documentary filmmaker named Dean (played by Dean Fleischer Camp) moves into an Airbnb and discovers Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate), a one-inch tall talking shell who lives in the house. Dean begins to film Marcel's daily life, which largely revolves around providing for his grandma, Nana Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini). Marcel and Nana Connie are the only shells in the house, but Marcel reveals that there used to be a community of shells that lived there. A mysterious incident has separated them from the community, and Marcel longs to be reunited with them. With the help of Dean, Marcel goes on a quest to find his family, and what follows is a sweet, surprisingly emotional journey that delves into themes of connection, loss, and our place in the world.
When I saw the first trailer for this film, I knew that this was going to be quite touching, but I was not expecting it to go as deep as it did. Certain moments hit me very hard, with a scene involving Marcel and Dean at an overlook as a prime example. The dynamic between Marcel and Nana Connie also connected with me, as there were certain aspects of their relationship that made me think of my own Grandmother. It has so much more emotional depth than a film about a one-inch talking shell should have, but I am more than okay with it.
The film also has some great world building, and expands on the original shorts nicely. It doesn't go too big, or bite of more than it can chew, but instead embraces its simplicity while also widening the scope to better fit a feature film. It retains the off-beat charm and warmth of the shorts, but it is able to explore bigger ideas and add to the lore of Marcel the Shell in a way that feels natural. In terms of its plot, it is straightforward and simple, but this is all part of what makes it so special. It explores such rich emotional territory that allows the film to soar, and makes for a lovely, heartwarming adventure.
Marcel the Shell is such an adorable character, and it is so hard not to like him. Part of this is due to Jenny Slate's excellent voice performance, which has to be one of the best of her career. Slate clearly loves playing Marcel, and since she co-created the character, there's no doubt that he is a personal character to her. The specificity of her voice and characterization of Marcel is so well done, and makes him such a unique and likable character. Slate nails the comedic elements of the character, but she also nails the more serious moments that he gets. You can't help but feel for Marcel at several points in the film, and so much of that is due to Slate's performance.
I was also highly impressed with Isabella Rossellini's voice performance as Nana Connie. I was pleasantly surprised to see that she was going to be in this film, and she ended up being one of my favorite things about it. It's a rather gentle performance, and her natural speaking voice is perfect for the character. The character is rather sweet and there is a fragility to her that Rossellini captures so perfectly. The moments where the character gets to have a little fun are some of the film's highlights, but there is one specific moment where she is reading a poem that took me by surprise. It is heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time, and is one of the things that has stuck with me the most from the film.
The film is a live-action/stop-motion hybrid, and it blends these two so seamlessly. It helps that the film has some great cinematography from Bianca Cline, who captures the world of the film beautifully. Her camerawork truly finds beauty in the small things, and allows us to be drawn into Marcel's world. The stop-motion is quite great as well, and some sequences truly impressed me. One scene where Marcel is essentially ice skating on a dusty glass table really stood out to me, as we see the dust rising so naturally as Marcel moves. I also appreciated some of the inventiveness of Marcel's daily activities, such as using honey as an adhesive, or to walk on the walls, and using a rope to connect a stand-mixer to an orange tree in order to gather fruit. We get such a full world in this film that it can be easy to forget that most of the action is taking place in one house. The film has such a warm and inviting aesthetic, and adds to its charm in a major way.
A lot of credit goes to director Dean Fleischer Camp, who also appears in the film as a fictionalized version of himself. He is able to balance the quirkier aspects of the film with emotional depth, and gives us a film that is so heartfelt and endearing without feeling overly sweet. The film is rather family-friendly, but some of its themes are heavier than one might guess. However, these don't feel out of place, and are explored in a way that is palatable, but doesn't rob them of their impact. This is Camp's feature-length directorial debut, and it is a solid one at that. He allows the story to unfold effortlessly, and delivers a fully-realized expansion of his original short films. Camp recently signed on to direct the live-action remake of Lilo & Stitch, and while I'm glad he's getting more work, I definitely want to see him do more things like this. Hopefully, he'll get the chance to do that, because this film definitely showcases the potential he has to be a great film director.
For fans of the original short films, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On will likely be a nostalgic blast from the past, but the film doesn't fully rely on its origins. This is both a great continuation, and a great introduction to the character for the uninitiated. But whether you're familiar with Marcel the Shell or you're a newcomer, this film is sure to warm your heart. It is a cozy little tale about the longing to connect with others and finding your place in the world. It deals with such emotionally rich themes and ideas that might not fully connect with younger audiences, but adults can definitely relate to. It's hard to believe that a film about a talking shell can elicit a strong emotional response, but Marcel the Shell with Shoes On pulls this off with aplomb. It is one of the most uplifting films I've seen this year, and is simply a lovely experience.