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Those with a twee allergy will want to pop an antihistamine before watching Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (now available on VOD services like Amazon Prime Video), a part-live-action, part-stop-motion-animation mockumentary about an anthropomorphic seashell with one single googly eye, a pair of shoes and a poignant sense of appreciation for mortality and the delicate nature of life on this planet. This is clearly the best part-live-action, part-stop-motion-animation mockumentary about an anthropomorphic seashell with one single googly eye, a pair of shoes and a poignant sense of appreciation for mortality and the delicate nature of life on this planet ever made, stemming from a series of shorts (and spinoff children’s books) by actress Jenny Slate and filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp. They expanded their teensy-weensy idea into a full-length feature, but rest assured, they don’t compromise their near-microscopic vision.

The Gist: A tennis ball rolls through a home, seemingly of its own accord. No, it’s not a haunted sphere, because inside is Marcel (voice of Jenny Slate), navigating the house hamster-ball style. He lives with his grandma Connie (voice of Isabella Rossellini) and pet lint wad Alan in an Airbnb rental currently occupied by Dean (Fleischer-Camp), who’s distracting himself from the pain of a recent divorce by making a documentary about his odd little housemate. Marcel’s day-to-day consists of inventive little ways to survive – using sticky honey to walk up walls, stretching a string between the kitchen mixer and a tree branch to shake fruit loose, knitting the string out of the strong little curly hairs he finds in the tub drain, etc. How he does this without opposable thumbs, or hands, or arms, is a mystery, but his adorbs little voice, wide-eyed naivete and ability to play tunes on an uncooked fusilli charms us so much, we have no choice but to let such questions slide.

Marcel describes a documentary like so: “It’s like a movie but nobody has any lines and nobody even knows what it is when they’re making it.” Which is true. And revelatory for how it reveals Marcel’s experience of the world. His life is full of hard work – how long does it take him to move from the kitchen to the yard to eat the fruit? He’s roughly the size of a quarter, and his li’l scoots are best measured in millimeters, so probably a couple hours or so, right? And Grandma Connie is showing signs of memory loss, so life isn’t always so easy for this eensy shell.

It wasn’t always this way for Marcel. He had a family, and the house had full-time human residents. The human couple argued and argued and argued and the shells hid in the sock drawer when things were thrown and broken. Then one day, the male half of the couple packed up and left, unknowingly scooping up Marcel’s parents and siblings and friends with his socks. And now Marcel yearns for them. Oh, does he yearn. Do you yearn? Surely you yearn. So you understand why he might want to find them. How, though? Well, Dean’s little video about the little guy went from 84 views to 22,000,000 right quick, presumably because the rest of the world suddenly got hip to the existence of an anthropomorphic seashell with one single googly eye, a pair of shoes and a poignant sense of appreciation for mortality and the delicate nature of life on this planet. This sure looks like an opportunity to follow those yearnings, doesn’t it?

MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON MOVIE STREAMING
Photo: Everett Collection

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: I haven’t spent this much time beneath a radish leaf or noticing the dust particles on the windowsill since The Secret World of Arrietty or, uh, Antz? Otherwise, Marcel is like Wes Anderson’s stop-motion work (Isle of Dogs, the inimitable Fantastic Mr. Fox) meets a mumblecore paean to loneliness.

Performance Worth Watching Hearing: Slate’s vocalizations strike a perfectly goofy balance of survivalist determination and bald innocence, bringing life to a character who’s undoubtedly cute, but otherwise visually inexpressive. Also, the improvisational tone of her dialogue works exquisitely within the mockumentary format.

Memorable Dialogue: Got a tissue nearby? Good: “The space in my heart gets bigger and louder every day,” Marcel says.

Sex and Skin: None.

Our Take: The reverberant hum from a pasta noodle has never sounded so sweet. Marcel the Shell is a strange little movie, surreal yet whimsical, intricate in its visual detail but simple in its bittersweet sentiment. It may be too cutesy for some; if it were any more twee, it’d be a Belle and Sebastian box set wrapped in knitted argyle. And why does every film have to be about grief and loss? Always with the grief and loss. Without grief and loss, the 21st-century film industry would crumble like a leaf and let the wind take it where it may.

Then again, grief and loss find much dramatic purchase in the soil here. Without it, Marcel might be far too silly for this world – and be yet another film about the relationship between humanity and the cameras filming it, whether it’s a documentarian or an influencer shooting a selfie in front of Marcel’s house, which becomes a hotspot for TikTokkers and the like once Dean’s video goes viral. Marcel’s take on being internet famous? He’s surprised nobody seems to want to help him find his family. They just want to bask on the periphery of his fame. “This is an audience, not a community,” Marcel wisely observes.

The film has its meta-meta-qualities too: Fleischer-Camp plays a version of himself; he and Slate were married, divorcing in 2016; their Marcel shorts, the first of which debuted in 2010, have tens of millions of YouTube views. Read into any of this as you may. But maybe that’s what makes a film with such a fanciful concept feel so personal, warm and intimate, emerging from a place of emotional honesty. It helps that it’s wryly funny, too – and wise enough to realize that its whisper-quiet musings on the cyclical nature of life and death are more resonant than a bellow any day. Then again, what else would we expect from an anthropomorphic shell with- well, you know.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On has boundless appeal. It’s clever, it’s consistently funny and dances right on the edge of cutesy without falling in.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.





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