Marcel The Shell With Shoes On


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Marcel The Shell With Shoes On
"The puppetry here is brilliantly done." | Photo: A24

In 2010, a series of short interviews with a small animated seashell appeared on Vimeo and toured film festivals, including Sundance. This was the first appearance of a character who would prove remarkably endearing and win many fans, even though he didn’t do much beyond talk about his day to day life. Talks began in 2014 about the possibility of a feature film, but can a concept like this successfully expand into a longer format? As it turns out, yes, it can, and this innovative little outsider project is one of the most deserving of 2023’s Best Animated Feature Oscar nominees.

To be fair, Marcel is more than just a shell. He also has a pair of pink shoes (hence the name), a single googly eye, and a voice provided by co-writer Jenny Slate. What director Dean Fleischer-Camp manages to do with such a simple creation is extraordinary. Little Marcel – or Marcello, as his grandmother Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) calls him – is just bursting with personality. The film is presented, in keeping with those shorts, as a documentary. The man and the woman in whose home Marcel used to live have broken up and moved out. The place is now being rented out as an Air Bn’B and Dean, also recovering from a recent break-up, has moved in there.

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There are tragic underpinnings to this story. The original couple’s break-up has inadvertently led to the loss of Marcel’s family, who were sheltering in a sock drawer and found themselves carelessly tipped into a bag. Now he and Connie are alone. Food is not as available as it used to be and although Connie has taken up farming, with the aid of some patiently tamed local bugs, she struggles to keep it up, clearly struggling from advancing dementia. This provides the film with two important elements. Firstly, it opens up a quest narrative, as Dean encourages Marcel to try various ways of searching for or reaching out to his family. Secondly, it gives us the opportunity to see the marvellous systems which Marcel has rigged up in order to accomplish necessary household tasks all by himself.

The film takes a further twist when our hero is contacted by US current affairs programme 60 Minutes, potentially giving him the chance to meet his heroine, presenter Lesley Stahl. This element may not have quite the same impact internationally, but part of what gives it its charm is the oddness of it. Marcel works as a character partly because he is drawn in such a specific way, with unpredictable personal interests, talents and ideas. He is constantly surprising us in small ways, often due to his ordinariness, which throws into sharp relief the fact that he is, well, a shell with shoes on.

The puppetry here is brilliantly done, and supported by simple but very effective lighting work. The pace is gentle, but you may still find yourself laughing out loud in places, especially during scenes near the end in which the animators really let loose. The sheer inventiveness of both the animation and the script is wonderful, and there’s a warmth and positiivity to it despite some of the distressing situations which Marcel has to deal with. Multiple layers of narrative and humour make it suitable for all ages. Running against a selection of epic stories for the Oscar, it’s an intimate tale which illustrates how much imagination is worth. A real treasure.

Reviewed on: 27 Jan 2023
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Marcel, a one-inch-tall shell, lives a miniature life with his grandma Connie and their pet lint, Alan. When the trio goes viral, they get millions of fans and new hope for finding their long-lost family.
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Director: Dean Fleischer-Camp

Writer: Dean Fleischer-Camp, Jenny Slate, Nick Paley

Starring: Jenny Slate, Isabella Rossellini, Dean Fleischer-Camp

Year: 2021

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: US


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