Every year there is a movie that comes along and forces one to question their own meaning in life, whether big or small. Favorites of this ilk include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Requiem for a Dream, Toy Story 3, La La Land, and now: Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. All the way back in 2010, the original short went viral, and won over the hearts of so many, myself included. Now, Marcel has been fleshed out into a full-length feature brimming with emotionality and dark humor, plus stunning stop-motion animation. Filmed in the style of a documentary, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a meta masterpiece spilling over with charm and tenderness—audiences of all ages with fall in love with Marcel.
Documentary filmmaker Dean (Dean Fleischer-Camp, who also directs, produces, writes, and edits the film) is hard at work capturing his most fascinating subject to date. A snail shell wearing pink shoes named Marcel (Jenny Slate, Zootopia, Big Mouth) lives at an Airbnb with his Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini, Death Becomes Her, Closet Monster). An expressive eye and a 2D-animated mouth doesn’t stop Marcel from helping to sustain his home. For speed and easy travel, Marcel uses a slit-open tennis ball he nicknames The Rover to get around, Nana Connie has her own little carefully-curated garden inside a wheelbarrow, and for food, Marcel uses a rigged mixer to shake down the tree outside. The two of them have essentially created their own haven after the sudden departure of the couple who used to live there.
Marcel and Nana Connie still opine the tragic disappearance two years prior of their entire family. One fateful night when gathering together for the communal watching of 60 Minutes, Marcel and Nana Connie are the only two that show up. Marcel’s mother, father, relatives, and neighbors are nowhere to be found. Sadly, as Marcel tells us in the opening, it “takes at least twenty shells to have a community,” and thus the first seed is planted for Dean to help tell Marcel’s story. Could tracking down the previous owners be the key to unlocking the mysteries of Marcel’s past?
Dean posts videos on YouTube, similar to the actual videos on the same website that made Marcel into a sensation. Imploring a call to action to help find his lost family, Marcel quickly gains online traction. As Marcel begins to go viral, people seem very invested in his tale. TikTokers stalk his house and make it a celebrity home destination for countless people. However Marcel doesn’t want an audience, he wants a community. Nana Connie’s memory is fading and health dwindling, and Marcel begins to have conflicting feelings about whether to go forward with his family search or to double down on protecting Nana Connie (which sounds an awful lot like Manicotti) no matter the cost.
Marcel’s little life innovations may be for naught with a dwindling food supply. No amount of sleuthing seems to be enough to unearth Marcel’s family! Filmmaker Dean immerses himself in Marcel’s world, helping out whenever he can. His adorable dog that is brought along for the ride and many aspects of his home life come into play as Marcel is especially inquisitive about Dean’s personal life. The journey they must take will forever change the way Dean looks at the world. Through the eyes of this one inch tall shell, we are transported to another world where anything feels possible yet it is not unlike our very own.
The animation style used to help Marcel come to life feels unique and quirky, nearly unlike anything I had seen before outside of those iconic early shorts. In elements where live action movement was used alongside the stop-motion, footage had to be filmed twice to stitch it together. It was made over the course of four years in a rather unique process that Dean Fleischer-Camp and co-writer Nick Paley spoke about at length during a Q&A after the movie. A repetitious pattern of writing, then recording with the cast took place month after month. Some kids asked too-cute questions like “Did you make Marcel, or did you find him?” but there were definitely several of substance. My favorite question is about the actual community message of Marcel. If an object is neglected long enough, it develops a spirit, and Dean explained that he wanted anything in the junk drawer to essentially be fair game.
When Marcel soars, the poignancy of the script hits the viewer like a ton of bricks. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On reminded me that there is beauty in everything around us—no matter how small we may seem, we have a vital part to play in the larger whole. Whether celebrating the comedic, simple joys Marcel finds fulfillment in as a shell—such as “ice-skating” in dust, singing onstage, playing “Taps” through a noodle—or quietly sneaking in humorous gags like Nana Connie falling asleep on a laptop’s “Z” button, the script from Fleischer-Camp, Paley, and Jenny Slate is a joy. A wonderful epilogue wraps things up with a tidy bow, but may also suggest more in the world of Marcel. One can only hope this will reach a wide swath of viewers with the A24 moniker behind it. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a terrific and heartfelt little raisin that is not to be missed.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On pads down the bread blanket for viewers everywhere in theaters on Friday, June 24th. I screened it courtesy of New York International Children’s Film Festival.
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