With all the overhyped rip-offs raiding the multiplex this summer—that’s you “Jurassic World”—it’s a pleasure to discover an unassuming animated gem poke its head through the hype. It goes by the name of “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” and you should make its charming acquaintance before the marketing machine for junk chases it out of theaters.
This little engine that could started life as a 2010 animated short devised by actress-comedian Jenny Slate (“Parks and Recreation,” “Obvious Child,” “Landline”) and her now ex-husband Dean Fleischer-Camp. After two sequel shorts and two children’s books, “Marcel” hits the big screen as a viral sensation that sees the value in staying small.
That’s because Marcel (indelibly voiced by Slate) is literally a shell. He lives in a Los Angeles Airbnb with his grandmother, Nana Connie (the ever-irresistible Isabella Rossellini). It’s their human neighbor Dean (Fleischer-Camp), a struggling documentary filmmaker newly separated from his wife, who decides to tell Marcel’s story on film.
It sounds simple, but that’s deceiving. The screen has never seen a character like Marcel, a hermit crab with two pink shoes, one plastic eye and a desire to be heard even if life sometimes makes him feel sad. Combining stop-motion animation with live-action footage, the film integrates Marcel’s miniature universe into the real-world chaos of our own.
Marcel and Connie were once part of a much larger shell community that got lost. Hope for a reunion surfaces when their favorite TV show, “60 Minutes,” arranges for an interview with co-host Lesley Stahl that might possibly bring Marcel’s family back together.
It’s a high compliment to mention that you probably have no idea how much laughter and unexpected tears will come after that interview. Fleischer-Camp, Slate and co-screenwriter Nick Paley create something funny, touching and vital with surprises you won’t see coming.
This small miracle of a movie mines humor from the pleasures of the unexpected as it sees the world from the point of view of a mollusk barely an inch high. All credit to the filmmakers and animators for making us believe in the impossible.
“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” makes room for its hero’s fears about his grandma’s fragile health and mental state. That adds to the urgency he feels about rediscovering his lost community. Such tenderness is rare in a comedy that you expect to slide by on easy laughs.
Not this time. This is a film about the comfort of family and community and the heartbreak you experience in their loss. You don’t expect a movie about a seashell that skates on tables to sneak up and floor you. But “Marcel” does the job with ardent and artful skill. The result is unique and unforgettable. What are you waiting for?