"Have you ever seen a raspberry?"
Not since Ellen DeGeneres stole our hearts as Dory in Disney/Pixar's Finding Nemo has an animated character generated such emotion. But Marcel, the tiny one-inch-tall shell at the center of Dean Fleischer-Camp's Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, has done just that.
Voiced by co-creator Jenny Slate, Marcel currently resides, along with his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini), in the top drawer at a Los Angeles area Airbnb. The two live a quiet life, operating on a unique system, relying on inventive ways to do otherwise traditional chores. A tennis ball transports them around the house, and a mixer, connected to a string, shakes the orange tree outside, releasing the branches of their fruit. While renters come and go, few ever take notice of the pair. But that is okay. They prove their independence, singing songs, playing games, and never missing a Sunday night airing of 60 Minutes.
When a filmmaker named Dean (played by the film's director/co-creator Dean Fleischer-Camp) moves in, he and Marcel strike up a friendship - one that he chronicles over a series of short clips posted online. The documentary-style videos are met with wild success, propelling Marcel into a social-media star. With the new attention, the tiny shell has big dreams of locating his lost community.
Outside of the layers of obvious meta-ness to the film's main story, both Slate and Fleischer-Camp (who were married during the original short's conception) bear a knowing eye to the balance of character and story. Never overdoing either one, they counter the sweet innocence of Marcel with the harsh realities of the real world. And though we sit there, watching a talking shell pull hairs out of the drain to create a usable rope, surprisingly, nothing within the universe of this film feels non-real.
As Dean works through his divorce, he learns more about Marcel's past, including his missing community. Unintentionally taken during a heated exchange between the original homeowners, the story, though whimsical and innocent, doesn't shy away from grave issues. Isolation, caring for aging relatives, and forced independence are some heavy hitters, though seeing Marcel's positive outlook on the world around him is heartwarming and motivational.
One of the most unexpected pleasures nestled within the story is Marcel's random pop-cultural references. With his primary source of knowledge coming from whatever is currently showing on TV, Marcel makes connections that most wouldn't consider. At one point, while discussing Connie's work in her garden and compassion for the insects who wander across its dirt, he compares the situation to Whoopi Goldberg's Sister Mary Clarence in 1992's Sister Act. Admittedly, after careful analysis, the correlation is there. But, you cannot overlook the fact an analysis was needed.
But that is what makes Marcel the Shell with Shoes On so brilliant. Though silly in context, the film possesses an absorbent amount of love, humor, and humanity. It crafts a story that though a bit long, yearns to be experienced. You'll likely tear up at least once during Marcel's adventure. You'll laugh a lot more. Rarely do films garner such strong emotional reactions. But at its core, this film is unlike most others. Sweet and endearing, it offers the world two qualities it desperately needs.