The Plot: Marcel (Jenny Slate) is a one-inch tall mollusc who also happens to wear a pair of shoes. He lives with his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini) who dotes on him. He observes the humans that come and go from the rental property he lives in. He’s also endlessly curious about his immediate world within the house, taking in the small details. Documentary filmmaker Dean (Dean Fleischer-Camp) charts Marcel’s daily life as he goes about his business, becoming an internet sensation in the process. With his newfound fame, Marcel has an opportunity to do the one thing that really matters: find his family…
The Verdict: A while back, a news story broke about the idiosyncratic Isabella Rossellini being cast as a snail in a new film that blends live action with stop-motion animation. Had her former director David Lynch gone back to his avant-garde roots in surreal short films? Not quite. The film that she made has finally emerged in the lovely and more accessible form of Oscar-nominated Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, a title that trips off the tongue in a way that is as charming as the film itself. The brainchild of actor-writer Jenny Slate and her now former husband / director Dean Fleischer-Camp, it first started life in 2010 as a series of short films on YouTube and gained acclaim along the way. It’s taken some seven years of production to bring the tiny, one-inch mollusc with a sense of humour to the big screen and send him on an expanded journey of adventure to find his beloved lost family.
Fleischer-Camp and Slate position the film as a straight documentary that follows the title character around the house, engaging his sense of wonder about the way things are. He regards a documentary as something formless, where the filmmakers don’t know what they’re going to end up with. When he lights up a lantern and floats it into the sky, he can’t understand why a dog would bark at something some simple and elegant. He’s enchanted by the idea of a raspberry and wants to know more about it. There’s a childlike sense of wonder and awe about the simplicity of the micro world he lives in. Everyday objects that the humans in his house don’t even notice are fascinating to him. Given that Marcel is already too-cute to begin with, he’s tugging at the heartstrings from his first introduction rolling around in his preferred form of transport: inside a tennis ball. After that, it’s a case of further tugging that is done in an effortless way that doesn’t cheapen its considerable effect.
It’s a rather delicate and slender film with a whimsical but wholesome sense of humour, so cynics not buying into the concept of a talking mollusc might want to look elsewhere. However, its charm will prove irresistible to others thanks to the way it never talks down to its character and treats him as a living being with his own thoughts, feelings and interests. The husky, little-girl-lost voice of Jenny Slate also works a treat. There’s a decent amount of narrative mileage here to get the film to feature-length without it feeling over-extended from its origins. The script is also beautifully constructed in the way that the humans are merely observers and not contributors, with the stop-motion animation lending a tangible, handmade quality to the film that ties in with its domestic and familial themes. The level of detail in the environments is also noteworthy, with a skating rink for Marcel being merely a dusty glass coffee table.
Marcel The Shell With Shoes On is a film that combines several filmmaking formats and revels in the micro world, but with poignant themes and a big heart to power it along without being cutesy for its own sake. It’s a small wonder that is delightful to the last and should charm adults and children alike with its unique viewpoint of the world, big and small.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Small wonder
Directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp.
Starring Jenny Slate, Dean Fleischer-Camp, Isabella Rossellini, Thomas Mann, Rosa Salazar.