There’s the finest of lines between adorable and annoyingly cutesy. Talking-pig classic Babe? Completely adorable. Anthropomorphised cephalopod doc My Octopus Teacher? Grrr.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, a stop-motion docu-mation that will bring instant joy to anyone who remembers Aardman’s Creature Comforts, falls firmly in the latter camp. Its hero is a one-inch-tall mollusc with a high-pitched voice (provided by Jenny Slate), a single eye and, for no obvious reason, shoes. He lives in an Airbnb – ‘a kind of computer hotel’, as he puts it – with his absent-minded grandma Connie (serenely voiced by Isabella Rossellini) and their pet lint, Alan. See, cute as a button.
It should make you grind your teeth to stumps. But an hour and a half in Marcel’s company leaves you little short of transformed. With Slate, his co-creator, co-writer and ex-partner, director Dean Fleischer Camp charts a world in which a semi-orphaned talking shell not only makes perfect sense, but becomes a perfect vessel to share painful, relatable truths about life. Dementia, loneliness and heartbreak are all writ large in Marcel’s world.
There’s sadness in the set-up, too: Marcel’s whole community of family and friends has disappeared overnight. His new house mate is Camp’s documentary maker Dean, fresh to the Airbnb after a break-up of his own.
Together, this oddest of couples build an affecting bond, with Dean as cameraman and helper as Marcel embarks on an increasingly viral quest to find his missing community and come to terms with another family member slowly slipping away. I challenge you not to well up when he likens Connie’s dementia to her losing ‘a very small piece of a very large puzzle’.
An hour and a half in Marcel’s company will leave you transformed
But that heaviness is delightfully lightened by oodles of visual inventiveness, warmth and peppery wit. The loveable Marcel compensates for his lack of mobility – he is still a shell, after all – with Heath Robinson-esque touches, travelling around the house inside a tennis ball and via zipline, oblivious to the fact that he’s assembled his wire using pubes from the bathtub.
And Marcel isn’t above sarking any humans in the area. ‘I don’t feel like this is the task force I was hoping for,’ he notes, side-eyeing the ragtag group of TikTokers who’ve tracked him down and pitched up outside. If there’s one final takeaway from this profound and poetic movie – and there’s a few to pick from – it’s the suggestion that a community built online can never be a match for the real thing. This is a shell well worth listening to.
In UK cinemas Feb 17. Available on PVOD in the US