de facto film reviews 3 stars

As charming as any Pixar or Hollywood family film, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is the feature film version of the 2010 successful You Tube short film of the same title. This is the debut feature for helmer Dean Fleischer-Camp, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jenny Slate and Nick Paley. Slate reprises the voice role of Marcel, a petite animated seashell with a large googly eye and a pair of pink plastic sneakers. Although this is a feature version, Fleisher-Camp, Paley, and Slate stay faithful to the idiosyncratic and cozy tenderness that made the YouTube short so beloved. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On delivers an endearing morsel, delightful but not too cutesy, absorbing but never too cloying. This wonderful film will certainly generate some universal acclaim during these difficult times.

The short film that spawned two more videos gets a larger budget and upgraded animated effects this time around, with a mix of live-action and stop-motion work by the Chido Brothers—who did such creative stop-motion work in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure as well as the impressive puppetry in Team America: World Police. Jenny Slate is quite comical in her clever voice work with a nasally impression of a boy’s voice, which suits her character of Marcel (He/Him/His), who delivers witty jokes with an innocent aloofness and naiveté. Not to be confused with a snail, Marcel is a seashell that resides in an Airbnb home that is owned by a documentarian filmmaker named Dean (played by Fleisher), who moves in there after a break-up.

Shed Tears for a Shell in Emotional First Trailer for Marcel the Shell with Shoes On - Paste

While residing in the home, he discovers Marcel and begins to document and interview him about his little existence. At the same time, Dean captures all these little mundane details that are also very amusing and consist of Marcel rolling inside a tennis ball, showcasing his comfortable “bread bed”, using honey to climb up walls, or informing Dean how he likes to use human toenails as a pair of skis. We also see Marcel gardening with his grandmother, Nana Connie (a larger and older shell voiced by the great Isabella Rossellini), and Marcel has to keep explaining to Nana Connie what a documentary is. More often than not, it is Marcel asking Dean questions about reality. as Marcel begins to ponder his existence in a very moving way.

As Dean films Marcel, we end up seeing Marcel rise to fame with YouTube clicks as Dean upholds footage of his documentation and interviews with the shell. It ends up becoming meta in this approach and becomes rather an engaging subplot to the film, leaving room for Marcel to have deeper characterizations and more of an emotional core. We see Marcel grow more of an emotional core, and his friendship with Dean allows him to open up more about his lost family as he yearns how they were separated once the former tenants moved out after a brutal breakup, which led to Marcel’s family being unknowingly packed away in the couple’s dresser.

Marcel the Shell' perfectly re-creates '60 Minutes' with Lesley Stahl

Marcel, for the most part, carries a lot of sorrow as he longs for his family, and he often covers that up with his wit and endless inquisitive questions for knowledge of the outside world, and Dean ends up forming an endearing friendship with Marcel. Rossellini is also deeply affecting as Connie, in which she is able to deliver her dry humor with pleasant results. Eventually, Marcel opens more and in one shattering scene, one eye drops in tears as he mourns for his lost family. You can sense that Marcel is displaced and yearns for his family and fellow shell friends that gave him the community he once had.

Most of the narrative consists of Dean documenting Marcel, and sometimes it does hit a lot of the same notes because no matter what Marcel does, it’s going to be lovable just because of how little he is and how sweet his voice is, which is delivered with such sweet affection by Jenny Slate. However, the film takes some complex and unexpected tragic turns before it gets too bogged down with cloying sentimentality. For instance, the character of Connie adds a lot of mature layers to the film. She is aging, and her memory isn’t the best, as it’s clear she is enduring dementia. The film’s third act is absolutely heartbreaking as both Dean and Marcel agree to do a 60-minute interview with Lesie Stahl, which just happened to be Connie’s favorite show. Slate delivers a beautifully rendered exchange with Leslie Stahl once she questions him about how time plays out for him, in which Marcel explains that he can’t tell time the way a human’s concept of time is, but really just how he has observed the passage of time through the seasonal changes, which brings some genuine and unexpected pathos to the character.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes on | pageslap

There is something remarkable in just how much genuine emotion is pulled off in this film, especially in how elemental the shell characters are: one eye, very petite, no limbs, very small mouth, and it’s really up to the voice acting to deliver the charm. The film peddles its own strange, peculiar spirit and wit, as well as many clever jokes merged with some existentialism and other deep things about grief, longing, and the power of family and community. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On may feel like it is asking a lot to be a simple family film based on a YouTube short, but the story earns its rich poignancy and sincerity. The result is a joyful experience that guarantees the audience will feel a lot of warmth with its flattering heart and soul.