Marcel the shod shell

There is a fine line between cute and cutesy. Mignon is a video of a puppy. Cutesy is the same video with a baby talk soundtrack. Cute is a family photo. Cutesy is a family photo where everyone wears the same sweater. In this context, it is a small miracle that Marcel the shod shell manages to be cute, but not cutesy. Because here’s the thing: the film should actually be cavity-inducing. It’s the story of a one-inch shell with a single large, expressive eye and a pair of pink shoes. And Marcel, voiced by co-creator Jenny Slate, literally talks like a baby! The premise sounds like a nightmare, and yet, in the hands of Slate and his director and creative partner Dean Fleischer-Camp, it’s charming, funny, and surprisingly poignant.

It all starts with Slate, who created a unique character in Marcel. I discovered the talking shell before I even knew who Jenny Slate was (a few years later she starred in Obvious child). The original Marcel the Shell video short was released 12 years ago and is still available on YouTube. Like the film, they manage to strike that happy medium between the hilarious and the heartwarming, as Marcel describes his life in a neutral way: “Guess what hat I’m wearing?” he asks. “A lens.” “Guess what I use as a pen? “A pen, but it takes the whole family.”

Yes, Marcel speaks in a kind of squeaky, sad chatter, but he’s not a dummy. He is a little shy, he has a hesitant way of expressing himself and he sometimes gets the wrong words and names. (The film makes a big deal of a moment when Marcel tries—and fails—to utter Wayne Gretzky’s name: “Whale Jetski? Is that true?”) He’s curious. (“Have you ever eaten a raspberry? How was it?”). And he can even be a bit critical. (Seeing an email signed, “Peace and love,” he scoffs, “Who doesn’t want peace and love? . . . I’ll start signing my emails, ‘Let the battle begin! ‘”).

As clever as Marcel’s concept is, it’s another small miracle that they were able to expand it into a feature film. (They cleverly borrow some of the best bits from the original video shorts, including Marcel’s “dog”, Alan, who is actually a piece of plush on a string.) In the film, Marcel is separated from his community shells, including his parents – following an unexpected tragedy. He is in mourning and feels a bit unsettled. Only his aging Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini) (!) remains behind. He loves his Nana, but she’s a bit weak and spends most of her time in the garden, bonding with insects. But now he’s made a new friend, recently divorced documentary filmmaker Dean (Fleischer-Camp), who rents the cottage-style house where Marcel lives.

Marcel the shell is presented as a documentary, as Dean interviews Marcel and uploads his videos to YouTube. Naturally, Marcel goes viral (TikTokkers show up at his house hoping to catch a glimpse of him and take selfies). Dean and Marcel have a wonderful bromance (shellmance?) and they both want the best for each other. (Marcel wants Dean to open his heart to love again; Dean wants Marcel to be less restless.)

A hero’s journey needs a quest and Marcel has two: find his family and meet his hero, 60 minutes legend Leslie Stahl. (The film’s homage to Stahl is another unexpected delight.)

I would be remiss if I did not mention it Marcel the shell is actually a beautiful film, even poetic. Part of Marcel’s spirit – slightly dulled by the loss of his family – is his appreciation for the little things in life: sunlight glinting through a curtain. A cool breeze. The apricot tree in front of his window. (He’s hacked up a blender, tied by a rope to the tree, which shakes the fruit.) He’s teaching Dean to enjoy such things too.

Because of my affection for these Marcel shorts, I was afraid that the film would spoil a good thing. This was not the case. marcel the movie is worth the wait – utterly endearing and never sickening. Although I have a word of warning. Cute: Marcel the shod shell. Cutesy: Your little kid repeating everything Marcel says for the next six months. Good luck!

Max Weiss is the editor of Baltimore and film and pop culture critic.

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