We’re all going through it right now. Fiscally, mentally, autonomously…you name it, there are myriad metaphorical mountains shoved right in our faces, most of which feel insurmountable. Escapism is a valve release for many, and summer movies with their bombastic over-the-topness can be cathartic. But there’s another option: Embracing a story that reflects how small we all feel right now. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On gives us the opportunity for a delicate, whimsical and poignant escape that will make you feel stronger, taller and better for it on the other side. Who knew that a one-inch shell with shoes on would be our existential savior this summer?
If you were poking around YouTube about a decade ago, you might have been witness to the viral introduction of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. The tiny shell with insightful observations, and questions, about our everyday existence evolved into a trio of stop-motion animated shorts created by director Dean Fleischer-Camp and writer Jenny Slate (who also voices Marcel). It took more than a decade for the pair, along with co-writers Nick Paley and Elisabeth Holm, to come up with a broader story that would bring their bitty big thinker onto the big screen for a worthy continuation of his adventures. What they came up with connects loneliness, grief, hope and Lesley Stahl.
No prior knowledge is necessary walking into Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, because the first act sets up the broader origin story for Marcel and their family, as well as recreates the heyday of their Internet notoriety into the film’s overall story. Taking place in a lovely Airbnb rental home in Los Angeles, Marcel is a resourceful little shell who lives in the vast home with his aging Nona Connie (Isabella Rossellini). Marcel spends most days creating Rube Goldberg contraptions, out of everything from standing mixers to turntables, to navigate challenges like climbing stairs or shaking kumquats from outside trees for food. The rest of their time is spent watching out for Connie as she gardens and makes friends with insects who assist in her garden-box tending. As Connie’s gotten more frail and forgetful in her old age, Marcel is the dutiful and gentle caretaker who cherishes her presence as his only existing family.
It’s revealed early that the pair were from a very large family but were orphaned when the previous owners, a couple who fought terribly, ended up breaking up. In a flurry of packing, the man accidentally separates Marcel and Connie from their kin in an unexpected sock drawer tragedy. They’re reduced to a family of two until a documentary filmmaker (Dean Fleischer-Camp) rents the house, meets the inquisitive and precocious Marcel, and starts making a movie about their life. We hear and occasionally see the filmmaker as the two form a friendship, but the camera remains focused on Marcel until the clever shell starts spinning the confessional lens right back on the filmmaker.
Like the shorts, the canvas for Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is our real world, so Fleischer-Camp and cinematographer Bianca Cline are tasked with turning the mundane—a nice but 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 reframes everything we take for granted and makes them charming spaces for Marcel to navigate—and for our eyes to discover with fresh perspective.
That same sense of discovery carries through to the wisdom and sass extolled by both Marcel and Connie. Together, they mildly bicker—clashing their stubborn worldviews about change or the value of bugs—then are in perfect alignment with their shared weekly adoration for 60 Minutes. It’s the filmmaker who causes Marcel’s quiet little existence to tilt as their uploaded documentaries take off and they become social media stars. Baffled by the attention, Marcel observes the hubbub with some hilariously salty commentary about the useless by-products of newfound fame. But it also brings the opportunity to possibly reconnect with their lost family.
The last act collects the seemingly disparate pieces of a small story, building a series of emotional payoffs that land with a tremendous power and heart. To say my theater was full of leaky faces and sniffles is an understatement. The dry eyes were in the minority, and it’s absurd realizing that some shells with buggy eyes and quiet voices can be capable of such a feat. The filmmakers’ alchemy proves yet again the potent magic of mixing the right words, performances, score and space.
Fleischer-Camp, Slate, the writers and their animators breathe an astounding amount of life into these inanimate objects, which run emotional circles around 90% of what’s come out in theaters since May. And you can’t say enough about the quiet countenance of Rossellini’s performance. She and Slate are delightful throughout, but when Rossellini takes the emotional reins, the film ascends to another level of resonance and poignancy.
Of course, the cynics and the naysayers may accuse Marcel the Shell with Shoes On of being too twee or not cinematic enough. That’s ok. From the jump, a huge part of the film is allowing yourself to go to the tender places this movie intends to take you. This is an introspective journey that, if you let it, shatters the tiny boundaries of Marcel and Connie’s shells, connecting us all to the wealth of shared experiences, feelings and wants that take up essential space inside every one of us. That we can learn to embrace those things, with such vulnerability and bravery, from an anthropomorphic mollusk proves the true power of cinema.
Director: Dean Fleischer-Camp
Writer: Dean Fleischer-Camp, Jenny Slate, Nick Paley, Elisabeth Holm
Starring: Jenny Slate, Rosa Salazar, Thomas Mann, Isabella Rossellini
Release Date: June 24, 2022
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official Story of Marvel Studios released in late 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.