A gentle pleasure isn’t necessarily a flimsy one. The hero of the faux documentary Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is a diminutive mollusk shell with one eye, two legs and a deeply philosophical view of life that extends far beyond his own tiny universe. This movie, which is rated PG, is perfectly suitable for kids (it’s rated PG). But it may resonate more with adults: Marcel—whose whispery, winsome voice is provided by Jenny Slate—serves up plenty of dipsy-doodle observations about the human yearning for connection, and the ways grief can sometimes give way to unexpected joys. Other times, he shows us how he uses a piece of curly pasta as a makeshift French horn, or eases his loneliness by adopting a pet, even though it’s really just a piece of lint tied to a string. All of these things constitute a kind of DIY manual for getting through bad days and good ones.
Marcel the Shell is directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp, and it’s basically an expansion of the 2010 short film he made with Slate, which itself spawned several follow-up shorts and two children’s books. The movie’s blend of live action and stop-motion animation, with Fleischer-Camp playing the documentarian, gives it a striking verisimilitude—you forget that neither Marcel nor his miniature created world is real. Marcel used to live in “a community,” located in the home of an always-squabbling couple whose members have since separated; their house is now used as an Airbnb, and all of Marcel’s compatriots, save one, are gone, having disappeared after an unfortunate sock-drawer incident. He lives alone in the house with his grandmother, Nana Connie (voiced, delightfully, by Isabella Rossellini), also a shell, but a very elderly one, her single eye clouded by age and the passage of time.
Marcel is lonely, but he tries not to be. He has fashioned comfortable surroundings for himself and his grandmother (she sleeps in an old-fashioned powder compact lined with cotton) and figured out ways to maintain a steady supply of food (a clever blender-and-rope setup jiggles an apricot tree outside, causing the fruit to drop from its branches). And although Marcel’s life seems small, Dean, who has taken up temporary residence in the house after the breakup of his own relationship, sees what’s special about him. Even the way Marcel introduces himself, explaining simply that his body is a shell but he also has a face, serves as an understated affirmation of self-worth: “I like that about myself, I like myself, and I have a lot of other great qualities as well.”
The movie’s plot is simple and as slender as a reed: Marcel’s world is rattled when he’s asked to be a guest on his and Nana Connie’s favorite show, 60 Minutes. (Host Lesley Stahl actually appears in the film.) He worries that Nana Connie, whose health is failing, will be distressed by the arrival of a television crew; she must persuade him to take advantage of every good opportunity life offers while he’s young. But that’s hardly the film’s most bittersweet element: Fleischer-Camp and Slate were married when Slate first conceived the character of Marcel, improvised on a whim. The two separated in 2016, a reality that casts one of the film’s threads—the sense of dislocation you can feel when people you know and love are no longer part of your everyday life—into stark relief. There’s nothing jarring or upsetting about Marcel the Shell With Shoes On; it deals very gently with the realities of death and loss. But its quiet tenderness feels expansive regardless, proof that good things really do come in small exoskeletons.