Review: ‘Marcel the Shell With Shoes On’ (a sense of wonder)

It’s the little things that count.

Marcel (voice of Jenny Slate) is an innocent one-eyed shell who gets along as best he can in the big world with his grandmother “Nana” Connie (voice of Isabella Rossellini) and their pet lint. Once part of a larger community secretly living in a rental home, a tragedy separates the shells from their family with little hope of ever seeing them again. When documentary filmmaker Dean (Dean Fleischer Camp) discovers Marcel’s existence on an extended stay, he films the shell’s antics and daily life, and his posts grow into an internet sensation. With Dean’s help, Connie encourages Marcel to leverage his stardom into an effort to locate and hopefully reunite with the rest of their missing community.

Directed by Dean Fleischer Camp from a script co-written by Jenny Slate and Nick Paley, the idea reportedly originated with Dean and Jenny over a twelve-year period where they married and divorced. It was one of many personal details strewn throughout Marcel’s film giving it a personal feel, the opposite of what studios who were approached with the idea wanted to do (including a weird pitch for a John Cena team-up buddy-cop premise). Unwilling to compromise, they eventually got A24 to back the initial idea of keeping Marcel as the main character, paving the way for a painstaking and meticulous seven-year production between filming, stop-motion work, voice work, and compositing. Finally unleashed into theaters, does the big little idea have the necessary weight to carry a feature film?

The concept is similar to “The Littles,” Trolls, and other fare with hidden critters living in the cracks and crevasses making do with whatever humans discard or allow to go missing. In the case of Marcel, however, it’s as if things spontaneously take on a life of their own, bits found in a junk drawer or the bottom of an old toy box that inexplicably fuse into some unique creature. Older and wiser Connie is wary of the bigger world Dean is exposing Marcel to, but she also sees an opportunity that she herself can’t provide, fueling what could have been a throwaway children’s story into something kids will watch but only adults will fully understand. Marcel’s world is often hilarious, sometimes dangerous, and always fascinating, a unique life outlook that doesn’t pull any punches.

Relationships coming to an end is an odd vehicle for a family film, but there it is. How Marcel and Connie lose their community; Dean’s arrival at the home; Connie nudging Marcel out of the proverbial nest; all of it deals with how life changes when familial bonds come undone or suddenly go away. While Jenny Slate’s breathy and bubbly voice for Marcel is front and center, Isabella Rossellini’s tone and subtle digs as Connie is masterful voice work, understanding what she doesn’t know could still be a potential danger to Marcel. Saying anything more would spoil the film’s arc and mysteries, but the director has an understanding of when to let the images do the talking to maximize impact.

Not since Toy Story 4’s Forky has the silver screen been graced with such a bizarre anthropomorphic character, only slightly more complex than a Pet Rock, but Marcel is lovable nonetheless. There are a couple of stretches in the film’s ninety-minute running time, but those moments of reflection are mostly earned following the darker turns. It sounds like a slogan written for a recruitment pamphlet, but it’s hard not to smile at the way a one-eyed shell sees the world.

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is rated PG for some suggestive material, thematic elements, and finding out what makes the strongest rope.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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