Film

Oscar-nominated Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is 'a charming, magic trick of a movie'

Don't miss Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, the adorable miniature mollusk on a quest to find his family.

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On

Image: A24Films

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 AntMan 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.

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.

Despite the distinctly US setting – the venerable current affairs show 60 Minutes is a recurring plot point – there is much that will seem familiar to UK audiences. That is because Marcel shares a lot of DNA with Aardman’s Creature Comforts (which brought naturalistic cadences ingeniously to life) and Morph (where Morph’s pal Chas enjoyed nothing more than creating chaos in Tony Hart’s workshop). If you take a second to consider how Marcel has been so cleverly integrated into real-life settings – poised on a record player’s arm, or hopscotching across a laptop keyboard – it becomes obvious what a labour of love it has all been. But because this little shell is such an endearing presence, all that intense stop-motion labour melts away: Marcel just feels weirdly real. It is a charming, sustained magic trick of a movie, and deserves to be a hit. Maybe even a big one. 

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is in cinemas from February 17

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
The Garfield Movie review – we're not feline the tubby orange tabby's full CGI makeover
Garfield in The Garfield Movie
Film

The Garfield Movie review – we're not feline the tubby orange tabby's full CGI makeover

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger – Scorsese's tribute to duo who inspired him
Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell, 1981.
Film

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger – Scorsese's tribute to duo who inspired him

Filmmaker Melanie Manchot explains how her drama Stephen can offer hope to addicts
Stephen Giddings in Stephen
Film

Filmmaker Melanie Manchot explains how her drama Stephen can offer hope to addicts

She-Hulk star Tatiana Maslany: 'Fear is not necessarily the worst thing to feel'
Tatiana Maslany Image: Alexei Hay
Film

She-Hulk star Tatiana Maslany: 'Fear is not necessarily the worst thing to feel'

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know