As we enter into a new year, we often find ourselves reflecting on the life-affirming moments we've had in the past year, or resolving to find more of them in the next 365 days. Sceptical you all may be at this proclamation, but the Australian release of 'Marcel the Shell with Shoes On' landing in the first week of the year couldn't be more perfect. Not only is it a brisk, clever comedy (perfect for those of you still nursing a New Year's hangover), it is also one of the most spirit-lifting films I have seen in quite some time. New year, new comfort film.
It's a lonely life for Marcel (producer and co-writer Jenny Slate, 'Everything Everywhere All At Once', TV's 'Bob's Burgers'), an adorable one-eyed, one-inch tall shell (yes, wearing little shoes) – or at least, it never used to be. Living in an empty Airbnb with the sole company of his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini, 'Incredibles 2') and Alan, his pet lint ball, Marcel longs for the rest of his shell colony who have disappeared under circumstances which are revealed through the film. Their existence experiences a life-changing shake-up when the newly-single documentarian Dean (Dean Fleischer-Camp, who also co-wrote, produced and directed the film) rents the Airbnb and uses his filmmaking talents to tell Marcel's story – and his search for his family – and simultaneously help him become a global online phenomenon.
Marcel's journey to the big screen has been over a decade in the making, beginning when Slate found herself creating Marcel's adorably shy voice in a hotel room over a friend's wedding weekend back in 2010. With the help of her boyfriend (and now ex-husband), Fleischer-Camp, Slate created a trilogy of shorts that were uploaded to YouTube. It wasn't long before Marcel became a real-life internet sensation, and his meteoric rise online is metatextually documented in this film, which itself took 7 years to make. In that time, our relationship to the internet has changed dramatically, but 'Marcel' nails what a present-day social media presence looks like, and Marcel's confusion at the world's fascination with him is a refreshing take on internet critiques. In fact, a lot of Marcel lore is self-reflexively explored in the film.
One may wonder how Slate and Fleischer-Camp might manage to turn such a slight concept of a talking shell into a feature-length film, but rest assured that 'Marcel' has plenty to say and then some. In playing a semi-fictionalised version of himself, albeit one whose story is often pushed behind Marcel's, we get to watch Fleischer-Camp mourn the end of his marriage, almost in real time (the character of Dean was fascinatingly written prior to his real-life separation from Slate). Even without having this knowledge prior to seeing the film, Dean's story is handled with such authenticity and respect that it did not surprise me to later learn about the film's production – it feels real because these feelings were real, and this is heightened by the mockumentary-style filmmaking. Dean's loneliness mirrors that of Marcel, and in their beautiful friendship they accept that, sometimes, sadness is just as integral to the experience of life as the happy moments we try to prioritise. To take this even further, Dean and Marcel's relationship with loneliness mirrors Slate and Fleischer-Camp working through their own changed dynamic through their separation with each other, and it's a testament to their professional chemistry and filmmaking talent that 'Marcel' is a cathartic experience not only for them as artists and people, but for their audience too.
I'll put it plainly – Disney wishes they could create a character this cute.
I could also spend a number of paragraphs singing the praises of Marcel himself, but I'll put it plainly – Disney wishes they could create a character this cute. If audiences aren't already feeling invited in by the constant fourth-wall breaking, Marcel's kindness, warmth and humour will have them hook, line and sinker. Don't be surprised if his simple yet profound musings on life - including one hilarious observation on the way we sign off emails - will leave you in just as many tears as they do laughs. Just as funny are the ways in which Marcel utilises everyday items, such as a tennis ball and honey, to travel around the Airbnb. They're small moments of detail that endear us even more to him.
Despite the simplicity and positivity in its core messages, 'Marcel the Shell with Shoes On' truly becomes special in its refusal to turn away from the darker, more sad moments in life. It's a deeply personal project that poignantly applies its musings to the universal experiences of life, resulting in a unique and unforgettable experience.