It’s not often a movie presents us with a completely new creation, but here we are: Marcel the Shell totters on what looks like two little troll doll feet. His single googly eye darts around, as if peering out of an imaginary periscope. He speaks in the high voice of a child, but with a guileless sort of wisdom, as if he’s confidently mastered his own little world. The movie around him is a whimsical comedy with brushstrokes of drama. It’s cute, but infectiously so. If you can get on its weird frequency, you might even find a bit of magic within Marcel.
The film doesn’t feature a story so much as a collection of droll vignettes. Most of the action takes place within a tidy little Airbnb, where Marcel (voice of Jenny Slate) has been squatting for a few years. He lives in a patchwork community of anthropomorphized critters, such as spiders, beetles, and squirrels. Marcel once had many relatives here, but the human couple who owned the house busted up, and the shells apparently scattered in the divorce. Now, Nana Connie (voice of Isabella Rossellini) is the only family he has left, and her health is failing. Despite his sturdy optimism, Marcel has a deep fear of being alone.
Marcel is built as a documentary, with Dean Fleischer Camp (also Slate’s real ex) playing a version of himself as the director. It seems that Camp is the only houseguest to spot Marcel, and decides to record the life of an enchanted talking shell. With shoes on.
Turns out, a day in Marcel’s life is quite something. He commands this little cottage the way Tarzan has domain of the jungle. Marcel knows every nook and cranny. He has goodies stashed in secret cubbies. Spilled honey allows him to walk along the windows and walls. Connie has an evergreen garden growing in a little wheelbarrow. A dusty old coffee table serves as a skating rink. For any of us, this house might get a three-and-a-half star rating. To Marcel, it’s a paradise.
Naturally, Marcel’s experience starts racking up views on Youtube. The internet hordes are moved by his quest to find his displaced family. As always, the comment sections billow with thoughts and prayers, but nothing of any actual use. That all changes when Leslie Stahl, co-anchor of 60 minutes, offers Marcel the chance to share his story and investigate the whereabouts of his shell gang.
What follows is an eccentric, surprisingly endearing little movie. The story is almost too thin for a full feature, but Slate and Camp (who co-adapt their short films with Nick Paley) fire off enough sly jokes to keep the momentum going. (Example: Marcel and Connie have a Sunday appointment to watch 60 Minutes, and they faithfully mimic its tick-tick-tick intro.) Slate does excellent voice work as Marcel, giving her little shell the paradoxical balance of plucky resourcefulness and hopeless naïveté.
I get how this movie might look a little too precious for some viewers. At the same time, I’ll wager that Marcel is smarter, sadder, and more richly textured than whatever you’re expecting. This is one of the year’s most pleasant surprises.
90 min. PG. On demand.