From its consciously quirky title to its undying commitment to a soft indie aesthetic to the fact that it’s a film adapting a series of YouTube shorts to feature length, you probably know going in exactly how you’re going to feel about Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. If the idea of a semi-animated mockumentary about a sentient and childish shell learning about the world sounds like cute fun, you’ll love it, and if it sounds too twee for you, run for the hills. For me personally, this zippy but self-indulgent stop-motion dramedy walked the line between charming and irritating, managing to mostly cross the gap safely, though there are undeniable stumbles into annoyance.
Writer-director Dean Fleischer Camp (who also appears as a fictionalised version of himself, the Dean who is making the Marcel documentary) first created Marcel the Shell… a decade or so ago alongside the fantastic comic actress that is Jenny Slate, who voices Marcel was also his wife at the time. The pair has since divorced – a fact that informs a lot of Marcel the Shell’s story in an intriguingly meta way – but that doesn’t seem to have gotten in the way of this A24-backed expansion of Marcel’s world.
Marcel is, as you’d expect, a shell, with a single eye and a pair of sneakers, discovered by Dean in an Airbnb that he’s staying in following a separation from his wife. A rambunctious little creature with a unique perspective (both figurative and literal, Marcel being roughly insect-sized) on the world, Dean starts documenting Marcel’s day to day activities in a YouTube vlog – again, meta – that becomes hugely popular.
From here starts a search for Marcel’s family of shells, almost all of whom were accidentally packed away in a suitcase by the old owners of the house following their dramatic breakup. All that’s left is Marcel and his grandmother Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini), who is his guiding light but is also suffering from dementia. If there’s one word to describe this journey, it’d be ‘gentle’ – never all that dramatic whilst only providing small laughs, with an ending that is going for tears but doesn’t quite have the oomph to earn them.
Marcel the Shell is generally at its best when it lets the plot sit on the backburner and instead just focuses in on Marcel’s tiny world, full of charming, Honey I Shrunk the Kids-style reinterpretations of everyday objects through minuscule eyes. The animation quality on Marcel is a considerable step up from the YouTube shorts, and you buy into his existence – which the film never frames as odd or remarkable – immediately. From using a hollowed-out tennis ball as a car to Marcel’s relationship with an adorable family of spiders, it’s a very fun world to be a part of, though you do wish that Dean would maybe pipe up with his commentary on it a little less, most of the gratingly twee stuff coming from these interjections rather than Marcel himself. It is odd that Marcel the Shell is being considered an ‘animated’ movie – even nominated in that category for the upcoming Oscars – given that it features way more live-action footage than, say Avatar or most of the year’s MCU offerings, but it is in this animation that the film really finds its feet.
Marcel the Shell does fall into the trap of being a little too amused and charmed by itself, but, at less than 90 minutes, it manages to stay lovable, for the most part, without wearing out its welcome and, especially if you have a higher tolerance for this sort of cutesiness, it’s very easy to recommend. It might not dethrone a chosen Disney or Pixar offering for a family’s go-to animation comfort food but, for older kids, it’s a nice insight into the sheer variety that animation as a medium can offer, with a placidity that serves as a refreshing counterpoint to a lot of its stablemates.