Chicago – Sound is one of the hardest things in a movie and one of the hardest things to describe in a review, but this is where “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” shines the brightest. This kid-friendly A24 film is somehow whimsical, bittersweet, life-affirming and a little bit heartbreaking all at the same time. And that makes it the perfect film for that moment when the world is looking for art that not only uplifts its audience with joy but also understands the pain of loss.
It’s a delightful surprise to find all this emotional complexity in such a humble little package about the story of a 1 inch talking seashell with big shoes and bigger dreams. But if there’s one thing this lovingly crafted mockumentary makes clear, it’s best not to underestimate Marcel. Perhaps that’s why the film that bears his name is one of the best of the year – a modern comedy that feels like a timeless fairy tale.
About “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”: A long-awaited feature
As fans of internet quirkiness may recall, stop-motion conch Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate) first made his debut in a 2010 YouTube short that quickly became a viral sensation. Two more YouTube shorts (and two children’s books) followed, all centered around the premise of an upbeat, confident little shell showing a documentary filmmaker named Dean (director Dean Fleischer Camp) at his home. And now the Marcel the Shell movie expands outward to provide an origin story for Marcel’s viral fame and a little more context for his unlikely friendship with Dean.
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It’s a setup that gives the film an excuse to repeat some of Marcel’s most quotable lines (“Guess why I smile a lot? Uh, because it’s worth it”), but what’s most intriguing here is that subtle but crucial change in tone. While the “Marcel” short films were sweetly absurd creations, the “Marcel” film is more of a gentle tragic comedy. As Marcel’s grandmother, Nanna Connie (an adorable Isabella Rossellini), explains, Marcel’s exuberant appearance is a bit of a performance — a chance to seize his time in the spotlight and hide some of the deep pain they both feel.
You see, Marcel and Nanna Connie were once part of a thriving community of seashells and other tiny googly-eyed objects that inhabited the suburban home of a human couple (Rosa Salazar and Thomas Mann). But when the lovers parted, the rest of the community was lost in a freak accident. Now Marcel and Nanna Connie are doing their best to survive and thrive on their own, even after their home has been turned into an Airbnb filled with a number of rotating human guests. So far, Dean is the first visitor to take notice of Marcel and his aging grandma – perhaps because the filmmaker is nursing his own broken heart after the breakup of their long-term relationship.
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So, yes, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is definitely a movie made by a divorced couple in the middle of a global pandemic (it’s the first of the “Marcel” series to be released, since Slate and Camp in 2016 announced their separation). And that meta-subtext fuels the film’s melancholic yet deeply hopeful feel. “But what if everything changes again?” Marcel anxiously asks his grandma as he ponders whether it’s worth risking what he has for something more. With the wisdom of age, Nanna Connie only needs two words to reassure Marcel that the inevitability of change is something to be embraced, not feared: “It will!”
See “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” for: One of the best films of the year
In that sense, Marcel has a lot in common with Pixar’s quirky but emotional films or the popular British series Paddington. But there’s more simplicity in this little, sun-kissed tale that blends live-action and stop-motion animation so seamlessly, you’ll forget you’re not actually observing living creatures. The film delights in the inventive, Rube Goldbergian pocket-sized details of Marcel and Nanna Connie’s lives (Marcel sleeps between slices of white bread), not to mention their oddly eclectic knowledge of pop culture (they’re big 60 Minutes fans) .” for example). And instead of building on one big lesson, it allows many small moments of observation to accumulate into something that feels greater than the sum of its parts, like a true documentary might.
In other words, “Marcel the Shell” enjoys the details of everyday life while acknowledging how complex everyday life can be. Marcel wrestles with themes such as the burden of grief, the power of hope, the importance of community, and the thorny side of fame without losing his signature courage. And though Dean initially tries to keep a documentary filmmaker’s distance, even he can’t help but be charmed by Marcel’s innocence. The sound of Dean laughing heartily at his little friend’s jokes becomes a sort of soundtrack that complements Disasterpeace’s playful score.
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It’s that sense of surprise and spontaneity that proves to be the loveliest thing about this all-around enchanting film – all the more impressive given that the actual stop-motion animation process is actually so meticulous. Like many whimsical tales of small creatures confronted by large worlds, Marcel the Shell is a metaphor for the joyful, frightening and exciting process of growing up. But it achieves rare honesty grades in relation to the complexities of this experience, in a way that will delight children but will appeal most deeply to the adults in the audience.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On hits theaters nationwide on July 15. Rated PG. 90 minutes. R: Dean Fleischer Camp. With: Jenny Slate, Pink Salazar, Thomas Mann, Isabella Rossellini.
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The boxing trolls (2014): At one point in The Boxtrolls, a film by stop-motion animation studio Laika, 10-year-old Winnie (voiced by Elle Fanning) asks her new friend Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) about his friends the boxtrolls. According to legend, these sewer-dwelling trolls are quite fearsome. In reality, they wear cardboard boxes for clothing, steal junk at night, and are actually quite friendly, even cheerful. But Winnie doesn’t know that yet and her hopes are high. “Did they eat your family and let you watch?” she asks eagerly. Eggs expresses confusion and she hastily corrects herself: “I mean, make You’re watching.” She tries to give back her mask of ladylike propriety, but it’s clear where her obsession lies. becomes both a hilarious running gag and a sly characterization in this refreshing, underrated film. Read the rest of film critic Jesse Hassenger’s retrospective. Rated PG. 96 minutes. To you: Graham Annable and Anton Stacchi. Also included Ben Kingsley, JaredHarris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Steve Blüm, Dee Bradley Baker, Max Mitchell, Tracy Morgan, Nika Futtermann, Tony Collette, Simon Pegg.
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How to watch Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On hits theaters nationwide on July 15. It cannot be streamed at this time.
About the author: Caroline Siede is a film and television critic in Chicago, where she doesn’t mind the cold anyway. As a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she spent four years analyzing the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her column “When Romance Met Comedy” for The AV Club. She is also the co-host of the film podcast, role calland shares her opinions on pop culture on Twitter (@carolinesiede).
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