Write about entertainment for two-plus decades — and watch more of it than any person should — and you can become a cynic. Little is surprising (at least in a good way), and even less is actually moving.
But Marcel the Shell With Shoes On brought both laughter and a tear to my eye (OK, maybe more than one). Can’t remember the last time that happened.
What Is Marcel the Shell?
I don’t want to say too much about the movie. After seeing it, I read a bunch of reviews, and it winds up like trying to describe a sunset, or a mystical experience — words just land with a thud.
But, here’s a bit of history and some trivia.
Marcel the Shell was born in a series of YouTube videos that began 10-plus years ago with a short film. The stop-motion-animated character, an anthropomorphic shell, is the creation of director Dean Fleischer-Camp and actress/comedian (and the voice of Marcel) Jenny Slate, who used to be married. (Watch the movie, and you’ll discover why that’s ironic.)
Here’s the original short:
The short won awards and became a children’s book series. But Fleischer-Camp always had bigger dreams for it.
Many years and much consultation later on what exactly a feature-film story should be (click here to read an interview with Fleischer-Camp on that subject), it’s on the big screen, distributed by A24 (click here for theaters and tickets).
What Is the Movie Version of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On About?
The big-screen Marcel is a geographically small adventure about a tiny sentient shell that touches on huge themes of love, loss, wonder, friendship, family, breakups, community and finding joy.
On the surface, it’s a children’s film, but I’d say it’s a true family film. The pace is too slow for tots, but grade-schoolers through grandparents will find something here.
There’s no bad language (Marcel does say, “Oh, my God”) and no violence. But the story, as gentle and gradual as it is, hits deep emotions. It doesn’t wallow in them, but, unless you’re made of stone, you’ll get feels.
It’s done in mockumentary style, as a filmmaker (Fleischer-Camp, as a fictionalized version of himself) who’s recently suffered a breakup discovers Marcel and his dollhouse world while staying in an Airbnb.
Marcel has lost his family and community (they’re not dead, just missing), and now lives just with his grandmother, Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini).
It’s up to Dean, with some help from journalist Lesley Stahl of CBS’ 60 Minutes (as herself), to help Marcel reunite his tribe.
Oh, and Stahl’s segment producer, Shari Finkelstein, is also the real deal.
Marcel, Meta and the Mainstream News Media
There are some delightful meta touches having to do with the vagaries of YouTube fame and being a social-media sensation.
Most devastating line about that? “It’s an audience. It’s not a community.” Yeah, there’s a big difference.
Also, the addition of the 60 Minutes angle might be the most positive portrayal of the mainstream news media in the last decade (not holding my breath for another one anytime soon).
In theaters since June 24, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On continues to expand its reach, and its earning curve is heading upwards. Reviews so far have been stellar (99% thumbs-up from Rotten Tomatoes critics), perhaps reflecting a need in society to see something good — not just well-done, but actually good.
There’s no real faith content in the film, other than a vague reference to feeling one with everything. One mom commenting on Common Sense Media called it New Age-y, but I wouldn’t go that far.
In Conclusion …
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is warm, charming and uplifting, with a hero that is equal parts wise and innocent.
He also reminds us that, as Dr. Seuss observed, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” Or even if he’s just a shell with a googly eye and pink doll shoes.
But, bring tissues. You’ve been warned.
Here’s the trailer (which is what convinced me to see it):
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