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Marcel the Shell’s Movie is Good Medicine for Our Pandemic Recovery

On my way to the office to write this review, I passed Grumpy D’s coffeehouse and saw that it had closed. This place too? So many neighborhood “third places” have disappeared during these past few years of pandemic, lockdown, and economic hardships.

It got me thinking. How many once-essential communities have I lost or missed in the last few years? After two years of “Zoom church,” my Episcopalian congregation began congregating in-person again only recently (and several friends have not re-appeared). COVID canceled a Santa Fe gathering that for 16 years had been the highlight of my yearly calendar: Image journal’s arts retreat, The Glen Workshop. A society I started 30 years ago focused on the joy of reading aloud—we didn’t miss a year until the pandemic. And I’ve been longing to reunite with my kindred creatives at Hutchmoot. In each of these sacred places, I’ve known love, purpose, and a strong sense of belonging. Being together transforms our separate experiences into a whole, a harmony, as if we are one large musical instrument.

Eager to fill the void, I “masked up” last April to join a packed house at the Seattle International Film Festival. What an adrenaline rush—this communal experience of big screen art after two years of isolation! The movie made us laugh early and often, and then moved many of us to tears. I stayed through the end credits, savoring the buzz.

I suspect that experience was enhanced by the fact that the film—Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, my personal favorite film of 2022 (so far)—is about a young dreamer’s loss of community, his longing for reunion, and the challenges that he and his grandmother face in going on alone.

Wait. Did I just admit that I cried through an animated movie about a talking seashell?

Speaking of community: Marcel the Shell’s origin story begins, appropriately, in a crowded place. Actress Jenny Slate explained it on The Drew Barrymore Show like this: At a 2012 wedding, she “felt so small” in the crowded hotel room where she and her friends were staying that she started speaking in a goofy, quavering, high-pitched voice to express how she felt. Her partner at the time, animator Dean Fleischer-Camp, decided the voice needed a character; so he combined a tiny shell, a single googly eye, and some pink doll shoes. The voice and the figurine were a perfect match. The videos they made together were a whimsical, improvisational project that became a viral sensation and led to a couple of children’s books. And now, at last, we have a feature film that is luminous with love.

Marcel’s movie is an achievement as inspired, as enthralling, and as wholesome as anything ever imagined by Jim Henson, A.A. Milne, or the storytellers at Pixar. Jeffrey Overstreet

If you aren’t familiar with Marcel yet, you might guess that Marcel’s power is just a case of cuteness and sentimentality—something “just for kids.” But no—unlike the saccharine simplicity that makes so much children’s entertainment forgettable, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On respects its audience’s intelligence and emotional capacities, revealing how, through the eye of this curious mollusk, a world that might seem mundane and unremarkable to us is actually alive with beauty, mystery, and possibility. Marcel’s movie is an achievement as inspired, as enthralling, and as wholesome as anything ever imagined by Jim Henson, A.A. Milne, or the storytellers at Pixar. And it has as much wisdom to impart to adults as it does to younger viewers.

Marcel is not merely “cute.” His life inching around the AirBnB where he lives with his benevolent grandmother Nana Connie (exquisitely voiced by Isabella Rossellini) is filled with challenges and hardships. Some of them mundane: he throws up in moving cars, and he is frank about how much he hates dog breath. Some are more sobering: Nana Connie shows early signs of dementia, and Marcel is scarred from the nasty domestic feuds between the man and woman who once owned the house he lives in. It’s because of the film’s honesty about hardships, trauma, mortality, and grief that this movie is likely to mean as much or more to adults as it means to young viewers.

But what I find most affecting about Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is its timely narrative about change and grief. The film is framed as an improvisational documentary by Dean Fleischer-Camp (playing himself), following these tiny shells as they move about the nooks, the crannies, the houseplants, and the backyard of the AirBnB. We learn along the way that they were once a part of a flourishing community. (Imagine Toy Story, but instead of living toys, Marcel’s creators have breathed life into all the odds and ends —the snack pretzels, the pencil nubs, the cracked peanut shells — that you might find under the couch cushions or in that one miscellaneous drawer of your desk.) And then, one day, that community vanished in sudden and mysterious circumstances. 

The fewer details I reveal about how that community disappeared, the better. (Hint: It does not involve a purple supervillain snapping his fingers.) From this point on, it’s best that you follow Marcel’s quest on your own as he seeks to fill the hole in his heart and find his missing loved ones.

I suspect you’ll want to see Marcel the Shell With Shoes On more than once. I’ve already seen it three times on the big screen, not only to laugh out loud for 90 minutes with my neighbors, but to feel my spirits renewed by the beauty, the light, and the intricacies of Marcel’s secret world. After you see how director of photography Bianca Cline and stop-motion director Eric Adkins merge animation and real-time footage into luminous images—curtains lifting on a breeze, a sunlit spiderweb, birthday candles as lamps around Nana Connie’s dinner table—you’ll find it easy to believe their testimony that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was a primary influence on their work.

As Marcel stares out the window into a world vaster than his tiny imagination can comprehend, wondering if he will ever be reunited with his family and friends, I found myself in that rare and elevating experience of cinema as prayer. Even though the film avoids specific religious terminology, I sense something sacred in Marcel’s vision of a world restored. But Nana Connie, in her wisdom, impresses upon Marcel (and us) that the path to healing is not without its risks, and not without its costs. It leads us forward into something new, not backward to recover what once was. In a moment of fear born of trauma, Marcel trembles and asks, “But what if everything changes again?” His grandmother, in a voice of courage and inexplicable joy, answers: “It will!”

As I was editing this essay, I learned that a friend of mine had passed away suddenly, unexpectedly, from aggressive cancer. Stunned, I looked up my most recent message from her. She had written to ask if I thought it was likely that the Glen Workshop might bring us back together again in person soon. Strangely, I thought of Marcel. And that was an encouraging thought. In the making of all things new, Marcel finds hope beyond the here-and-now reunions I hope we are all experiencing. His epiphany—which we experience with him at the film’s glorious conclusion—offers us a profound image of an ultimate reconciliation.

Like Jim Henson before them who gave ping-pong-ball eyes to a sock puppet and changed the world for “the lovers, the dreamers, and me,” these artists have breathed life into a tiny shell. And the character who springs to life onscreen gives moviegoers of all ages a new frame within which to wrestle loss and grief with faith on a path upward into hope. In the words of a song that Marcel performs with deep sincerity, you’ll “want to linger a little longer” in his world, even as you learn to lean forward, courageously anticipating how love is making all things new.

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