Marcel the Shell with Shoes On: Can’t Break Out, by David Bax

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (the new feature film) is probably well aware that you might very likely have only the faintest memory of “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” (the short film from 2010). But it’s betting on the chance that you’ll find the new iteration charming for the same reason so many people responded so positively to the older one. Namely, it’s very cute. The downside to that is, if you never connected with the short, you’ll find it hard to vibe with the feature for the same reason. Namely, it’s very cute.

With an expanded runtime, the new Marcel the Shell with Shoes On also has an expanded plot. The character of the director (played by Dean Fleischer-Camp, the actual director) doesn’t just interview Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate), a tiny talking shell with tiny tennis shoes and one googly eye. He helps the abandoned young mollusc look outside of the big, empty house he occupies with only his grandmother (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) and find the rest of the family from whom he was suddenly and accidentally separated. This means that, for all the cool indie cred the A24 imprimatur and the distributor’s savvy marketing team lend the film, it’s essentially a kids’ movie about discovering one’s place in the world, not all that biologically different than Follow That Bird.

No one said as much, though, to composer Disasterpeace (It Follows, Triple Frontier). Camp enlists the services of the pedigreed ambient electronic composer, who brings some of the same spacey catharsis to Marcel the Shell with Shoes On as he did to hip, marquee indie flicks like Under the Silver Lake. The results are lovely but only add to the cognitive dissonance.

Eventually, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On makes a better case for itself as the Marcel of the movie starts to achieve the same level of fame that the original short did. An answer is offered to the question of why this movie would be made so long after its source material has exited the spotlight. Camp and Slate have the experience of viral frame and the distance from that experience to offer perspectives like, “It’s an audience, it’s not a community.”

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On buries and delays its best observations, though. There’s a thread it starts to pull that might lead to Camp’s character, not Marcel, becoming the focal point; a movie about a man trying to capture someone else’s life in order to avoid his own. That material and point of view is certainly present but you have to look through a lot of cuteness to see it.

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