‘Marcel the Shell With Shoes On’ Meditates Gently on Grief

gentle pleasure isn’t necessarily a flimsy one. The fake documentary’s star Marcel the Shell with ShoesA tiny mollusk with only one eye and two legs, this shell is deeply philosophical about life. 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. This is a DIY guide for both good and bad days.

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. The house is shared with Marcel’s grandmother Nana Connie. Isabella Rossellini voices the delightfully nimble Nana Connie. Although a shell of a woman, she is very old and her eye is clouded from the passing of time.

Marcel can be lonely but he does his best to make it less so. His grandmother and Marcel have created comfortable environments for themselves (they sleep in an old-fashioned powder container lined with cotton), and found ways to ensure that they had enough food. He cleverly used a blender-and rope system to shake the apricot trees outside. This causes them to lose their fruit. 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.”

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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.The film actually features Lesley Stahl, the host. 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, Shoes OnIt is gentle with loss and death. Its quiet tenderness is expansive, proving that even small things can bring out the best in people.

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