Synopsis – Feature adaptation of the animated short film interviewing a mollusk named Marcel.
My Take – While it is easy to be skeptical about watching a film about an optimistic, self-assured talking little shell with a one googly eye wearing tiny tennis shoes, an image that is not easy to get ones head around, who graces us with his innocence and a poignant outlook on everything. But knowing that indie powerhouse, A24, which specializes in distributing innovative and creative features, was attached to film, it was reason enough to get into this one.
However, nothing could have prepared one for the extremely heartwarming and touching story that even the most cynic of human beings will end up lapping. Mixing comedy with some real life human lessons this one truly pulls on all of your heart strings.
Based on a 2010 YouTube short that quickly became a bit of a viral sensation, and was followed up by two more shorts, and a best-selling picture book, director Dean Fleischer Camp and co-writer and star Jenny Slate worked on developing a feature for seven years that expands outward to provide an origin story for Marcel’s viral fame and some more context for his unlikely friendship with Dean’s documentarian.
Acting as a meta semi-autobiographical twist on the filmmakers’ own lives, and it’s clear that the subject matter is close to their hearts. Now expanded to a feature length film of 90 minutes, the innovative and curious premise holds up as a genuinely great family film, filled with sharp comedy, deep emotion, and astute observations on identity, community, and the fast paced world we live in.
There is a welcoming innocence in the film’s wispy tone, and when combined with its exceptional writing, credited to Dean Fleischer Camp, Jenny Slate, Nick Paley and Elisabeth Holm, the result is a relatable character full of warmth, wit, pain and humor, that will leave one grinning (with a few tears) throughout. Making it without a doubt one of the best films of the year.
The story follows Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate), a seashell, who along with his sassy grandmother Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) share a big home used as an Airbnb. Sometime ago, the two were part of a thriving community of seashell, including Marcel’s parents, and other tiny googly-eyed objects who inhabited the suburban home of a human couple (Rosa Salazar and Thomas Mann). But when the lovers split up, the rest of the community were accidentally lost. Since then Marcel and Connie have been doing their best to survive and thrive on their own, even as their home goes through a series of rotating human guests.
That is until Marcel strikes up a friendship with Dean (Dean Fleischer-Camp), an amateur documentary filmmaker, who became the first guest to actually notice them. Fascinated, Dean begins filming the inventive and clever ways that Marcel and Connie go about their lives as shells, from gathering food, traveling about and taking care of each other. And when Dean uploads Marcel’s funny and sweet life observations online, he quickly becomes a social media sensation world-wide, a medium through which Marcel decides to find his family.
Yes, initially, it is weird to feel so much for a one-inch shell that is trying to find his family while taking care of his grandma. Yet, for such a simple concept, first time director Dean Fleisher Camp has created a brilliant and heartfelt story that will surely touch the heart of all audiences. His journey was all-around wholesome.
There’s some heartbreaking moments, but overall it yielded such satisfaction that there were tears of joy from me. It’s a delightful surprise to find all that emotional complexity rolled up in such an unassuming little package via the story of a one-inch tall talking shell with big shoes and bigger dreams.
But if there’s one thing this lovingly crafted mockumentary drills home, it’s that it’s best not to underestimate Marcel. The film relishes in the details of everyday life, while acknowledging how complex everyday life can be. Marcel wrestles with topics like the weight of grief, the power of hope, the importance of community and the thorny side of fame, all without losing his signature pluck.
Marcel is stoic and brave in the face of loss and grateful and welcoming at the sound of emergency. And though Dean initially tries to maintain the distance of a documentarian, even he can’t help but be charmed by Marcel’s guilelessness. It also helps that the comedy is constant and absolutely spectacular.
The witty dialogue takes jabs at the oddities of both human and shell behavior, but also often carries a surprisingly poignant depth that one could not have expected. The stop-motion animation brings to life these characters in a wonderful, believable way. Like the shorts, Marcel comes to life via incredible stop-motion animation work from director Fleischer-Camp and animation director Kirsten Lepore.
The excellent attention to detail and intimate camerawork create a rich, all-encompassing setting for the film. It’s some of the best animation work I’ve seen in a long time, and you really feel as if you’re a little shell yourself as you’re watching.
The canvas for the film is our real world, so director Fleischer-Camp and cinematographer Bianca Cline are tasked with turning the regular old house into a micro-playground filled with dappled light and ordinary obstacles meant to push Marcel’s ingenuity. Coffee tables become ice rinks, plant boxes become communal gardens and washing-room window sills become contemplative nooks for self-reflection. Their macro lens re-frames everything we take for granted and makes them charming spaces for Marcel to navigate and for our eyes to discover with fresh perspective.
Voice performance wise, Jenny Slate has never been better. I would never have identified her as the voice of Marcel if I hadn’t just known in advance that it was her. She is ably supported by Isabella Rossellini who is quite spellbinding and Dean Fleischer-Camp whose presence gives the film an intimate and unique angle.
In other roles, Lesley Stahl, Rosa Salazar, Thomas Mann, Nathan Fielder, and Jessi Klein are effective. On the whole, ‘Marcel the Shell with Shoes On‘ is a whimsical and poignant mockumentary that is both heartwarming and hilarious throughout.
Directed – Dean Fleischer-Camp
Rated – PG
Run Time – 90 minutes