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Marcel The Shell With Shoes On Review: Did My Heart Seriously Just Break For A Shell?!

It’s a touching and hypnotizing cinematic work that has been made with extraordinary craft...

Marcel The Shell With Shoes On wearing a backpack and venturing out into the world
(Image: © A24)

Dean Fleischer-Camp’s Marcel The Shell With Shoes On is a reminder that movies are magic. There is a definite drift away from reality in the storytelling, with the protagonist of the piece being an anthropomorphic kitsch knickknack, but like being charmed by a spell, the fiction of it is never something that your brain reminds you of while you’re watching it. Instead, all you know is fascination with the lifestyle of this little one-inch-tall being, and powerful heartbreak learning the story of how he became separated from most of his family. You have to see it to believe it… because it’s magic.

Even better, the enchantment doesn’t dissipate once you accept how the magic is performed. It’s a touching and hypnotizing cinematic work that has been made with extraordinary craft – seamlessly blending documentary-style cinematography and the delicate and beautiful art of stop-motion animation. It’s a small, intimate, independent movie, but one with spectacular, massive ambition and a gorgeous soul.

Based on a trilogy of short films from the early 2010s, Marcel The Shell With Shoes On is a mockumentary that explores the life of the titular shell (Jenny Slate), a figurine who lives in a Los Angeles Airbnb and is discovered by filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp (as himself). Living in a house built for humans, Marcel has had to invent many different tricks for survival, such as rolling around in a tennis ball for fast transport, or attaching a string from a stand mixer in the kitchen to branches in a tree in the backyard to shake loose fruit.

Marcel lives with his aging grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini), who has built a wonderful garden that the two of them farm, but he used to have a whole family and community that lived in the house with them. When Dean’s first video about Marcel becomes a viral sensation online, the protagonists wonder about the possibility of using the platform to help find all of the missing friends and loved ones, but sad realities about the modern world not only make them question the possibility of success in their mission, but create real danger.

Marcel The Shell With Shoes On is sweet but never sappy, and adorable but not cloying.

Cynics may raise an eyebrow at Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, sure that the movie will frequently veer off into twee territory and become a saccharine mess – but the only saccharine mess here are the footprints made of honey on the walls and windows that result when Marcel needs to do some climbing around the house. The eponymous shell is certainly cute in a kind of Disney way, but all of the emotion that the movie is able to generate is conjured earnestly, and no drama is introduced that in any way feels manipulative or unnatural.

A tremendous amount of credit for this goes to Jenny Slate, who is not only the voice of Marcel, but his co-creator along with Dean Fleischer-Camp. She imbues the character with a kind of wide-eyed innocence that not only perfect for a being that has never experienced the world outside his own house, but often sweet to the point of hilariousness. Sometimes it’s Marcel's simple confusion that inspires chuckles (like when he is trying to grasp the full scale of the world when outside looking for his family), and sometimes it’s in naïve bluntness (like in describing the fate of a family member who accidentally got put in the washing machine). Of course, being exceptionally funny also only makes Marcel more endearing.

The captivating story and characterization of Marcel The Shell With Shoes On hinders one’s ability to apprecaiate it as a technical marvel as you are actually watching it, but it is most certainly something that stuns in reflection. Along with her team, Kirsten Lepore’s work as animation director for the stop-motion animation is brilliant and flawless in a way that adds tremendous and important verisimilitude to the live-action feature. The fluidness of the work never lets the audience see the line between the two mediums, and its enrapturing as a result.

The genius is not only in the movement and characterization, but also the remarkable design. Marcel The Shell With Shoes On is relentless in its creativity, both in its depiction of Marcel’s lifestyle and how he gets through life, as well as the subtle details of the small world. Every scene in the movie finds a way to wow.

Between millions across the globe having access to high quality HD cameras and the power of visual effects making the impossible real for $100 million blockbusters, it’s understandable that modern moviegoers might become somewhat jaded to the magic of movies – but that’s why having films like Marcel The Shell With Shoes On is necessary. It’s unassuming in every way, but a phenomenal and uplifting piece of art destined to be remembered as one the best of the year.

Eric Eisenberg
Eric Eisenberg

NJ native who calls LA home; lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran; endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.