From thunder gods to spider-teens, we are living in an age dominated by cinematic superheroes. But what qualities are audiences looking for in these larger-than-life characters? Bravery? Empathy? Portability? If that last one is a biggie then good news: this is a bumper release week for protagonists you could safely pop into your pencil case. In Ant–Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Avengers power couple Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly crank their size-altering tech all the way down so they can explore the phantasmagoric Quantum Realm, a dinky dimension full of alien wonders. And in Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, a one-inch tall mollusk with a single googly eye potters round a secluded Airbnb to care for his grandmother, who sounds suspiciously like Isabella Rossellini.
The whole world will likely turn out to see Rudd and Lilly go on their sub-atomic safari, not least because Quantumania properly introduces the next big baddie in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe mega-story. But even though Marcel does not have a special suit – or even any actual clothes apart from those natty little sneakers – he is as deserving of attention as the biggest superhero special effects extravaganza. The fact that Marcel the Shell With Shoes On was recently Oscar-nominated for Best Animated Feature hints at this homely mockumentary’s combination of technical craft and emotional heft.
It has also been about a decade in the making, which seems like a long time even when you are dealing with the arduous process of stop-motion animation. Created by then-couple Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp, the Marcel Cinematic Universe began as a series of homemade YouTube shorts in 2010. If the sight of a teensy mollusk clambering over relatable dioramas of domestic untidiness was not cute enough, Slate’s disarming vocal performance – an inquisitive, often mischievous stream-of-consciousness ramble that somehow sounded as small and vulnerable as the youthful Marcel himself – pushed things beyond adorable.
What works as a sweet three-minute film does not necessarily work as a full-length feature. But Slate, Fleischer-Camp and their team of collaborators have expanded the Marcel mythos without losing what feels special about the character. In the early running, it is not even entirely clear exactly what is going on. The viewer is plonked into a fly-on-the-wall documentary where Marcel is a funny, unguarded interview subject keen to demonstrate his daily routines. He is being shadowed by heartbroken film-maker Dean (played by Fleischer-Camp) who clearly booked this remote Airbnb to get away from it all only to become fascinated by his diminutive housemates.
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Between Marcel bouncing round the floor in a ragged tennis ball and mountaineering to high shelves for supplies, we are able to piece together fragments of the wider story. When the former owners of the property broke up, Marcel’s extended family went missing in the aftermath. Since then he has been a kid living a Home Alone life, improvising ways to look after himself and his ailing grandmother.
When Dean’s videos of Marcel go viral on social media, echoing that initial burst of popularity back in 2010, it seems as if having millions of followers might help our hero track down his scattered friends. But fame, particularly online fame, can be a hindrance as much as a help. Poor Marcel must overcome some pretty challenging obstacles during his journey, adding a bittersweet note to what is, for the most part, a kind-hearted hug of a film.