Marcel the Shell with Shoes On: A Review

Here’s a pitch for you. How about we go and see a stop-motion animation film about a shell called Marcel who lives in an AirBnB with his grandma and enlists a struggling documentary film maker called Dean to help him find his family. You’d think I was demented, right? I admit, the synopsis of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On doesn’t sound like much. But the reality of this little film is so, so different. I’m glad I managed to catch it in my local cinema this week and have been thinking about it ever since.

Just have a look at the trailer. I have a soft spot for stop-motion animation and in this film it’s cleverly blended with live action. The result is utterly believable. We all know that talking shells don’t exist but the film, and its clever camera techniques, make you forget that inconvenient truth in the first five minutes. Others are much better equipped to explain the technical brilliance of all this, I’m just here to tell you that it WORKS, and wonderfully so.

The film is packed with subtle visual jokes, none of which work particularly well when explained in writing. There’s one scene in which Marcel’s grandma (expertly voiced by Isabella Rossellini) falls asleep while standing on the “Z” key of Dean’s laptop and writes a string of Zs on the screen. It’s cute, it’s smart, and it appeals to my (admittedly rather niche) love of interesting things happening in the background of already interesting scenes.

The story of a person looking for their family could easily become twee, yet Marcel steers away from the sentimentality cliff. The film is too gentle to be called a satire but it does aptly summarize the problems of contemporary online culture when Marcel concludes that the people who watch his Youtube videos “are an audience, not a family”. Perhaps more could have been made of this angle. Then again it would have resulted in a very different film, so perhaps this is for the best.

Although Marcel is a PG-rated animation film I would not necessarily recommend it to children. It doesn’t contain any violence or inappropriate scenes but some of the topics covered will go way over the heads of your average child. The film subtly discusses depression and loneliness, with Marcel remarking that “I would enjoy this, if I were a different person.” This is exactly howI remeber feeling during less optimistic times: the tension between knowing you should enjoy life, and you probably would, if only you weren’t the person you were in that particularly moment in time.

Without wanting to spoil to much of the plot, allow me to say that the film also contains powerful meditations on death and losing loved ones. Despite its shortly length of 90 minutes the film packs a surprisingly powerful punch. Yet I left the cinema feeling uplifted rather than deflated. There’s simply to much to enjoy, like Marcel’s passion for 60 Minutes, and his innovative use of household appliances, and his grandma’s interest in poetry.

If showing in theatres at all, Marcel appears to be getting a limited run time, which is perhaps to be expected for such an unusual film. But go and see it in the cinema if you can. It’s intricate details work best on a big screen. Failing that, it will be coming to streaming platforms, so give it a go. I haven’t seen a film this original in a long time, and in a world dominated by blockbuster franchises, that’s something to celebrate.

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

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