Marcel the Shell With Shoes On honestly couldn’t have been a better first film back at SXSW because it truly understands the main thing that makes life worth living: community.
Marcel the Shell began its life as a series of shorts created by director Dean Fleischer-Camp and actress/writer Jenny Slate. While it first premiered on the festival circuit over a decade ago, its success as an early internet meme is where it truly came to life, introducing the world to the endearing charm of Marcel – and, by extension, Jenny Slate. The original shorts are rather simple: an off-screen director interviews the titular tiny, one-eyed shell about his life which consists of delightful activities such as using a tennis ball to get around his house or using human toenails for skis.
Really, Marcel is just a small child – which basically means he’s full of wonderment and endless corny jokes. Nothing much happens in these shorts, but you get a real sense of Marcel’s personality – which is bright with just a tinge of sadness. When they set out to make a feature length film, however, they wanted to expand his world. While it still only fills a house – considering Marcel’s size, it might as well be a universe. The movie succeeds in creating a fully realized world where the lives of Marcel and his grandmother (played by the ever-charming Isabella Rossellini) are explored in all their fanciful, if mundane, glory.
The story is simple but effective – Marcel and his grandmother find themselves suddenly alone when the rest of their community has gone missing after hiding away in a suitcase during an argument between the humans who owned their house. Fending for themselves, they befriend a man staying at the house – now an AirBnB – who decides to document their tiny lives, eventually working to help locate their missing friends and family. There are poignant meditations here on everything from the role of community, to growing up, to death and dying – the hallmarks of all great family films.
The animation really shines throughout. While there is undoubtedly some CGI here and there, the jerky stop motion animation brings not only a sense of nostalgia but a genuine naturalism to the world. As ridiculous as his life might seem, there’s never a moment where you don’t fully believe in his world and it’s a joy to explore it alongside him. There’s nothing flashy about any of it, which honestly makes it all the more naturalistic at you watch Marcel use honey to climb up walls or gardening by pulling vegetables out with rock and string.
As the audience cheered and sniffled throughout, the most immediate touchstone that came to mind were the recent Paddington films. Like them, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On contains exactly zero cynicism. Thank God. While it pokes a bit of fun at the internet sleuths who end up causing more chaos than help in his quest to find his loved ones, it never stops long enough to condemn anyone. It recognizes that everyone’s just out here trying to find their people, encouraging the audience to be like Marcel: hold your head up high and be true to yourselves no matter what life throws at you.