A young boy and his grandmother who have been separated from their family enlist the help of a documentarian to reunite. There’s a concise capsule review for you of Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, which elides only that the boy and his grandmother are, in fact, shell creatures.
Over a decade ago, future ex-spouses Jenny Slate and Dean Flesicher-Camp created the whimsical Marcel for a series of shorts and a couple of children’s books. In this feature, a newly single Dean (played by Fleischer-Camp) discovers the shell creatures at his AirBnB after splitting with his girlfriend, and decides to make a documentary about them.
Dean’s backstory is lightly told, mostly as the curious Marcel probes the reluctant filmmaker about his situation, and is one of the many light and artful touches to a story that could have been twee and insufferably shallow. Slate provides the voice of Marcel, and back in 2010, this was her first voice-acting role and would lead to a robust voice career (“Bob’s Burgers”, Despicable Me, The Secret Life of Pets, and most famously as Bellwether in Zootopia) augmenting her somewhat desultory acting career (My Blind Brother, Hotel Artemis, Venom).
The focus here is on Marcel who is, of course, very cute. As we’re introduced to him, we discover his modes of travel (inside a tennis ball, for example, for high speed movement, and putting honey on his shoes so he can walk on walls and windows), his means of support (formerly snacks from humans, now a garden), and his relationship with his elderly grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini). Apparently, long ago (Marcel is not good with time, which sets up some good gags) the owners of the house split up and in a rage the man dumped all the contents of a drawer into his bag and left.
Marcel and Connie were not there because they were early to the shell family’s weekly viewing of “60 Minutes”.
After a series of entertaining sight and verbal gags—Marcel is not sarcastic or caustic, but he is very pointed in his questions—Dean lights on the idea of making Marcel a YouTube channel to see if anyone can help him find his family. This section of the film is fairly interesting commentary on the utility of Internet fame, where Marcel discovers that his main interest to the “influencer” world is as a prop to their self-aggrandizement.
Ultimately this leads to attention from “60 Minutes” and the real prospect of reuniting with his family.
There’s your story: Short, sweet, cute, but also showing how the struggles of life are universal: We deal with dreams, loss, friendship, family, fame, and all from the perspective of a one-eyed shell.
I almost didn’t go see it. The whole “60 Minutes” bit and lionization of Lesley Stahl made me wonder if there wouldn’t be some other messaging in there. But there isn’t really: It’s a simple story, well told. And it’s a fairy tale, so I don’t mind that it takes place in a semi-functioning world (unlike our own) where journalists actually do fearlessly seek out the truth. Stahl’s earnest recreation of her interviewing style as she talks to a stop-motion-animated shell only highlights the absurdity of our current establishment.
It’s weird to have this as a consideration for a children’s movie, but this is where we are. (It recalls to me somewhat my experience of Ghost Writer, where in order to avoid seeing a movie about anal rape, I had to go see a movie by Roman Polanski.) But Marcel is probably saved because it’s a passion project for Slate and Fleischer-Camp, who I’m sure they’re reliably left (and Slate starred in the pro-abortion film The Obvious Child) but a good artist tells a good story first and foremost, and this simple adventure is a good story—a hero’s journey that understands the hero has to have some troubles and overcome obstacles and so on.
After a limited release, the film took off, sorta, and ended up with about $7 million at the box office. (DC’s Super-Pets, by contrast, has made $70 million—but on a budget of $90 million, which is a tad higher than Marcel, and with much less interesting results.) I was amused to see the Chiodo Brothers name on this for the animation—I know them best for Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Robocop, An American Werewolf in London—but they’ve been around a long time and have done plenty of family fare as well (Elf, “Goosebumps”).
I suspect the film will really take off in streaming, but it hasn’t shown up on any services yet.