I had no firsthand knowledge of Marcel going into this, but the character was apparently a viral sensation about ten years back. The whole thing started with a collaboration between Jenny Slate and filmmaker Dean Fleischer Camp, in which Slate voices a sentient seashell with a mouth and one eye, standing on a pair of shoed feet at one inch tall. It sounds utterly ridiculous, which is probably why the original 2010 short film — plus the two subsequent short films — quickly racked up millions of views on YouTube.
So here’s Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, a feature-length continuation of the online short films, in which Slate reprises the character and Fleischer Camp makes his feature directorial debut. I hasten to add that the film is 90 minutes long including credits, so calling it “feature-length” would be generous. Anyway, for those unfamiliar with the character and the premise, what the hell have we got here?
The film takes place pretty much entirely in a single house that’s being rented out as an AirBnB. From what I can tell, Marcel is only partially a shell — he and his people secretly live in the walls of this particular house, putting together their own bodies and anything else they need out of whatever bits and bobs they can find. So it’s kind of a “Borrowers” situation.
There was a time when Marcel was part of a massive thriving community that lived in these walls, but they had the misfortune of living in a home owned by an argumentative and extremely unhappy couple (Mark and Larissa, respectively played by… Thomas Mann and Rosa Salazar?! No idea what they’re doing here, but I’m glad to see they’re still getting work.). Long story short, Mark finally dumped his all of his belongings into a suitcase and left for places unknown. Trouble is, he took pretty much all of Marcel’s family with him, leaving behind only Marcel and his Nana Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini, of all people, who reportedly took the role at the behest of her kids).
Enter Dean Fleischer Camp, a documentary filmmaker here playing himself. After a messy breakup of his own, he rented out this particular AirBnB so he could have a place to stay until he could find a place of his own. He somehow discovers Marcel and Connie and decides to make a documentary film about them and how they’re capable of doing anything. Turns out they have to be quite industrious when they’re only an inch tall and they’ve only got two feet and a mouth to work with.
As we’ve already established, Fleischer Camp’s documentary filmmaking savvy makes Marcel “internet famous” overnight. Marcel decides to lean into this, recruiting his worldwide audience to help him try and find the rest of his wayward family. If you know anything about how the internet works and the kind of people who make YouTube videos go viral, you might already predict that things get… *ahem* rocky, to say the least.
Let’s digress for a moment to talk about Cars. Yes, I mean the Pixar movies set in a world perfectly identical to our own, except that it was all somehow built by people without any functioning digits because all life on Earth somehow evolved into freaking transportation vehicles. From a strictly literal viewpoint, with an eye toward the logic of how this setting could possibly function or come into existence, the conceit makes absolutely no lick of sense. But from a thematic viewpoint, with regard to expressing themes of obsolescence and mortality and slowing down before life passes you by completely, the conceit makes a lot of sense.
That’s basically what we’ve got here. The very nature of Marcel, and the notion that such a being could live unaided in a modern world, are outrageously absurd in a strictly logical sense. And to the film’s credit, the filmmakers don’t even bother trying to make it make sense.
Rather, the filmmakers put a much greater focus on how Marcel’s nature makes thematic sense. For all its peculiar trappings, this is very much a story about a small, fragile, and helpless kid with childlike naivete and curiosity trying to make sense of a big bad world gone crazy. On another level, it’s a movie about attention, specifically with regard to everything good and bad that comes with getting attention on a global scale, especially when — again — Marcel is small enough that he could easily be ignored or even injured accidentally by anything else in the world.
Marcel’s individuality is also a hugely important point. He’s got Connie and he’s got Dean, but that’s about it. And of course Marcel doesn’t want to think about what will happen if Dean actually finds a permanent place to live and leaves the AirBnB. Not to mention that Connie is significantly older and even more fragile than Marcel is. The bottom line is that Marcel is in constant danger of losing what little company he has, and that paralyzes him into inaction quite a few times. Then again, there are some times when it’s better to be alone. Moreover, at least Marcel has something to fight for.
All of this serves to give the film a surprising amount of heart. But then we’ve got the humor, due in large part to all the effortless riffing between Fleischer Camp and Slate. I’m frankly astounded that the two collaborators could come up with all of this dialogue off the cuff and make it work in such a meticulous and time-consuming medium as stop-motion animation.
Moreover, it’s incredible that the makers of this shoestring indie film could make the main character an effect that looks so consistently marvelous. Of course, I’m sure it helps that Marcel is such a bizarre character by nature — when a character is so far beyond the realm of what could plausibly exist, a great many flaws in execution are forgivable or even imperceptible. Even so, the stop-motion presentation effectively sells Marcel as a tangible being who exists in real space and that serves to make the character more endearing.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is an odd duck, no doubt about it. The bar for suspending disbelief has been set astronomically high, and the gossamer plot has been padded to an inch of its life even at just under 90 minutes. But anyone willing to accept this movie on its own wacked-out terms will find a nicely endearing and lightly comical movie about love and loss and finding community. I might add that when I saw this, the theater was packed with young kids who had a great time with it.
This is absolutely a wonderful movie to go see with the whole family, but I worry that it’ll be swept away in the glut of mid-July blockbusters. (Case in point: Those thrice-double-damned Minions are still in theaters as I type this.) As with Marcel’s previous short film outings, I think — and sincerely hope — the character will find his audience online.