Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
- Director: Dean Fleischer-Camp
- Writers: Dean Fleischer-Camp, Jenny Slate, Nick Paley
- Starring: Jenny Slate, Isabella Rossellini, Dean Fleischer-Camp
More often than not, I’m alone when I go to the theater. Sometimes I even have the theater to myself, which is what I secretly hope for whenever the lights go down and nobody else has entered. There’s a sense of freedom that comes with the sensation; freedom to laugh loudly at all the stupid jokes, freedom to squirm at an uncomfortable development, or freedom to simply stretch myself out. But at my screening of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, there wasn’t an empty seat to be found, and somehow the experience made the film all the more potent. Because when you’re watching a film that’s all about finding friendship amongst the vast loneliness of the world, being surrounded by a room full of strangers (and right next to my wide-eyed 7-year old) is oddly cathartic.
Roger Ebert believed that movies that are pointedly made for both children and adults end up being for nobody. I have taken my oldest son to a few movies since he’s been old enough to do so, many of which are Disney-produced films with characters designed to sell toys, which he loves and I find enjoyable enough. Marcel the Shell feels like the first of those films that wasn’t created in a lab to appeal to the widest possible audience. It’s a film brimming with joy, and a real sense of personality that’s missing from today’s kid-centric entertainment.
The film follows the titular Marcel, a stop-motion animated shell, voiced beautifully by Jenny Slate, as he explains his everyday life in his empty (human-sized) home and the ingenious ways he survives. It’s shot documentary-style, much like the popular YouTube videos it’s based on, with director Dean Fleischer-Camp serving as a character in his own film as he documents Marcel’s life. The plot, such as it is, sees Marcel attempting to find his family after they go missing. You see, before the film begins, Marcel shared a house with a man and a woman. They would sneak around, undetected, eating leftover bits of food and watching 60 Minutes. But the man and woman broke up and unintentionally took the rest of the shells with them, leaving Marcel and his Nana (Isabella Rossellini) to fend for themselves.
There’s an understated current of sadness throughout the film; not only do the shells find themselves essentially as lonesome byproducts of a break-up, but “Dean” also finds himself suddenly alone after a recent divorce. And yet, Marcel continues to find the beauty in the world around him. Slate’s excellent voice work goes a long way in making Marcel a sympathetic character worth rooting for. How can you not be charmed by a character that has to creatively figure out ways just to get from one place to another? Too many animated films – or films that have voiceover work featured prominently – simply coast on a star’s naturally charismatic voice, but in Slate’s hands, Marcel’s nasally goofiness adds to his youthful charm (it’s unclear exactly how old Marcel is, but he’s been without his family for two years). Similarly, Rosellini leans into her character’s fragility but shows plenty of warmth to flesh out Marcel and Nana’s relationship.
Much of the film unfolds as a series of vignettes, with Marcel more concerned with taking care of Nana than finding his family overall. There’s a light, improvisational quality to the dialogue, as if Slate simply turned the recorder on and some of the funniest bits made it into the film. It should be noted that none of the human characters ever question why there is a one-eyed anthropomorphic shell or the wider implications of his existence.
Fleischer-Camp and Slate, who are both responsible for creating the web series, populate the film with smaller, inconsequential scenes that still have a poignant resonance to them. A film where a quirky shell spouts off non-sequiturs and platitudes about the world shouldn’t be as profound as this, but Fleischer-Camp and Slate have such a firm grasp on the characters and the world they inhabit. Rarely does it feel like Marcel is simply trying to be cute for the sake of being cute. It should also be noted that Marcel the Shell lacks an antagonist; there is no inherently bad person that’s out to harm Marcel, no scary demons to overcome, and no preachy life lessons to be learned by the end of it. The most overt bit of social commentary involves the hilarious aftermath of Marcel’s videos going viral.
Though the film initially premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2021, now feels like a perfect time for it to be released. After nearly two years in isolation and lockdown, we still crave that human connection that we missed out on during the worst parts of the pandemic. Sometimes there can be beauty in isolation (maybe that’s the introvert in me talking though) and sometimes we need someone else to come along to show us that we’re not really alone. There’s no wrong approach to life in this regard. Maybe I would have had a different reaction to Marcel the Shell if it was just me and an empty room. All I know is that, on a swelteringly hot summer day, I saw a lovingly crafted film, I wasn’t alone, and it felt great.
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is playing in select cities now and will be available everywhere on July 15.
- Marcel the Shell won’t qualify as an animated film because of the live-action elements. Sadly, distributor A24 will surely prioritize its other films when campaigning begins, and Marcel will be left in the dust.
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