Best films of 2023 in the UK: No 10 – Marcel the Shell With Shoes On

<span>Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

The movies are going through a phase in which franchised or generic material – or anything at all – is becoming ever more soullessly produced as “content”. And yet there is at the same time a reaction, a yearning for something real and organic in the movies, something with the handcrafted imperfection and waywardness that can’t be nurtured in the corporate environment. A kind of “real ale” movement. Superhero movies are beginning to pall and Pixar animations are starting to seem too programmatic.

This wildly popular stop-motion animation is the ultimate beneficiary of this new hunger: Dean Fleischer Camp and Jenny Slate’s film Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is so airy, so tiny, so eccentric, so exotic, that it appears to break every rule of instant relatability. It whimsically avoids the easy grasp and the elevator pitch. Even the title is baffling and forgettable – are the first and third words supposed to rhyme? – requiring two or three repetitions before it can be committed to memory.

It’s a movie with a grassroots fanbase that had already been cultivated online, as it was developed from a wacky YouTube series. The premise is that the director has moved into an Airbnb after the breakup of his marriage to discover that someone or something is already in the house: a seashell the size of a thumbnail called Marcel with a tiny voice (provided by co-writer Jenny Slate); his apparently European heritage makes him sound like some continental import.

Marcel has a big blinking eye and dinky little shoes. And he is looking after his seashell-granny (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) who loves the poetry of Philip Larkin. The notional plot is a quest narrative: Marcel is trying to track down the rest of his family, who were accidentally taken away by the house’s previous human inhabitants. Marcel and Dean enlist the help of TV news reader Lesley Stahl from 60 Minutes to find his extended clan. He also gives Dean very calm, wise emotional advice.

Marcel’s existence is not like that of Woody and Buzz in Toy Story: he does not gleam with witty detail and smart design touches: he looks more homemade, as if he could have been voiced and animated by an exceptionally bright 14-year-old.

The adult humans, so much bigger, are matter-of-factly acknowledged and accommodated on screen without this being supposedly funny itself. In that respect, Marcel and his grandmother and their quirky relationship to the sympathetic human (Fleischer) are perhaps like something by Spike Jonze, but much less knowing and savant. The star cameo is not the arch event that it would be in any kind of comedy: Stahl plays quite a big role here, yet without her celebrity status breaking any kind of fourth wall.

It is an intensely likable and lovable movie that alchemically converts bafflement or exasperation into affection. The quirky, funny relationship between real-life grownup Dean and the imaginary tiny, childlike seashell Marcel is the bromance of the year.