Bite-sized pearls of wisdom and wonderment from everyone’s favourite YouTube crustacean sensation make an elegant shuffle, frequent leaps and occasional tumbles from the internet to the big screen in Dean Fleischer Camp’s marvellous Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
An expansion of the original viral creation, the film again features the singular vocal talents of Jenny Slate, who gives glorious expression to its loveable eponymous lead once more. Just as there is much more to plucky Marcel than meets his one eye – he is indeed a seashell and he does where shoes, but don’t underestimate the little guy – take a step back and there’s a bigger picture here. Blurring the lines between reality and storytelling, the personal lives of the former couple and filmmaking duo who created the character intrude in the documentary-style study being crafted as we enter an apparently vacant house with a filmmaker named Dean.
Finding Marcel living in a large, dusty home with his grandmother, Connie (who has a different accent because “she came from the garage in a pocket,” and is voiced with grace and real warmth by Isabella Rossellini), it soon becomes clear that a man and woman used to live here together but the house is now up for AirBnB rental after they separated. Dean, himself recovering from a break-up (from Slate?), moves in and begins to film the intriguing goings on. It’s all very meta. But what could have become laboured metaphors are handled deftly, woven into a broader exploration of learning – for either man or mollusc – how to deal with traumatic circumstances, loss, saying goodbye and letting go.
Heartfelt and sincere but thankfully not overly saccharine, it’s worth underlining, too, just how outrageous funny Fleischer Camp’s film is. Much of the humour comes from what feel like spontaneous one-liners from Slate. Perhaps the greatest ice hockey player of all time being referred to as ‘Whale Jetski’ left me in pieces. In both misunderstanding and misinterpreting elements of life and the greater world, there’s a beautiful innocence to Marcel that encourages a different way of viewing, to see what truly matters. Further to this, there’s a playful turning of the tables, a kind of thumbing of the nose, towards Marcel’s incredible internet success (circa 2010).
Asking questions as to what constitutes a genuine, loving community as opposed to likes, view counts and the hollow popularity of a vast, largely faceless online audience, when Marcel makes a plea for his new ‘followers’ to help in finding his lost family, little assistance is forthcoming from the masses. Unceremoniously tossed into a suitcase from the sock drawer – where they were sheltering from the thunderous final throes of the aforementioned relationship – Marcel longs to find his relatives, who he hasn’t seen in some time. It’s a simple through line, but one on which Fleischer Camp gently hangs his film. Inventive and industrious, it’s impossible not to be swept up in Marcel’s daily routine as he roams the house in The Rover (a tennis ball with an escape pod) or helps his ailing grandmother in her garden. Her gradually fading memory and faculties – Connie suffering with dementia – tinges the latter stages with real sadness, provoking, perhaps, tears of a different kind.
The final word, however, must go to all in the art, sound, visual effects and animation departments of the film whose work throughout is quite extraordinary. Fully deserving of its Best Animated Feature nomination at the upcoming Oscars, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a true delight.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63