Synopsis: When struggling filmmaker Dean moves into an Airbnb, he quickly discovers that he is not alone. Marcel, an adorable one-inch-tall shell, already lives there with his grandmother Connie and their pet lint, Alan.
Stars: Jenny Slate, Rosa Salazar, Thomas Mann, Isabelle Rossellini, Andy Richter, Nathan Fielder, Peter Bonerz, Jessi Klein, Lesley Stahl
Director: Dean Fleischer-Camp
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: A decade ago, we were at the peak of the viral video heyday. Who didn’t get that email from a friend/co-worker with a link to some funny YouTube clip that was either ROTFL in its hilarity or a goofy eye roll on its way to the recycling bin? Like most nine-to-fivers working a corporate cubicle job, sometimes I needed a good laugh to make it through the workday and often thrived on these. That’s why I’m a little amazed Marcel the Shell with Shoes On never made it across my virtual desktop when it appeared on the streaming site in October 2010.
The creation of (then) husband and wife Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate, the three shorts released in 2010, 2011, and 2014 featured a squeaky-voiced mollusk filmed talking about himself and spreading small amounts of joy in the process. Marcel (voiced by Slate, Zootopia) was childlike at times but deeply wise in others, pondering the mysteries of life and putting into off-the-cuff perspective the big picture we sometimes lose sight of. The stop motion animation of Marcel in various scenarios wasn’t groundbreaking from a technical perspective. Still, something in the way it presented itself without guile or pretense spoke to all ages. Unsurprisingly, the tiny guy became a huge hit, spawning a book and now a feature film adaptation.
For total transparency, I watched the three shorts after I saw the film. I’m glad I did because the movie recreates/incorporates several of the same jokes/lines/scenarios featured before. This full-length movie isn’t just a greatest hits collection, though. Fleischer-Camp and Slate brought Elisabeth Holm (a frequent Slate collaborator) and Nick Paley to formalize and expand the story, giving Marcel a backstory and purpose above and beyond the philosophical musings that put him on the map. In doing so, they’ve made an inanimate object more human and relatable than most films in 2022 with flesh and blood actors.
Marcel is small but mighty, no bigger than a grape, with one expressive eye and two pink accented shoes. Though he doesn’t possess hands, somehow he’s managed to create an endless playground of discarded/found items in a home he shares with Connie (Isabella Rossellini, Enemy), another shell starting to show her advanced age. The last of their “community” left behind after the owners of the house (Thomas Mann, Lady and the Tramp, and Rosa Salazar, Alita: Battle Angel) broke up and put their shared home as a rental on Airbnb, the two shells have forged a happy, if at times, lonely, existence. The newest tenant, Dean (the director himself), discovers Marcel one day and decides to make a film out of the esoteric eccentric.
Getting to know Marcel more through their interactions, Dean learns of Marcel’s wish to find his lost community and, in a meta twist, puts a collection of their filmed interviews on YouTube. Echoing that first video which took off like a rocket, Marcel becomes an overnight sensation and even attracts the attention of Marcel and Connie’s favorite news anchor, Lesley Stahl from 60 Minutes. Can Stahl help them locate the couple that left them behind and reunite them? How will Marcel react to his newfound fame, and does he even want his easy-going existence to change?
Coming in blind to Marcel the Shell with Shoes On required a bit of an adjustment to not just the punchline style delivery of everything Marcel says but in that same rapid-fire changing of scenes as we are introduced to Marcel and Connie’s world. The writers all have a talent for sharp wit and improv comedy that result in some hilarious passages; once you move past the material that feels like it’s all set-up and punchline, the real plot kicks in, and that’s when something special develops. Fleischer-Camp and a talented array of filmmakers give the shells real personality, and the animation blends seamlessly with the live-action, creating a believable diorama. It’s a sharp improvement over the YouTube videos (obviously with a studio like A24 involved) and I wouldn’t doubt this could get some end-of-the-year recognition in technical categories.
The voices are also an essential part of this puzzle. Adding in Rossellini’s character shows a high emotional maturity rarely found in movies that viewers could otherwise think of as simplistic. (It also gives the film one of its best jokes, capitalizing on Rossellini’s thick accent.) Already a talented voice-over actress, Slate again delivers grand work voicing Marcel with a pitch that could have quickly gone into the annoying realm if handled differently. The softness in the lilt and execution tells an emotional story without the words to express it. The creativity in the writing matches that in the voice work, creating a harmony that feels both well thought out and true to the characters.
I saw several kids at my showing of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and can see why the film would look like it appeals to them. I’m not sure the movie is made for them, though, if that makes sense. The enormity of emotions (it hits you good right when you think you’re out of the woods) and life-size scaled questions are admirable to introduce, but it feels more like a kid’s movie made by adults for adults. A big screen theatrical showing feels almost too big for a character that began life as a YouTube creation, so delaying for at viewing home would be fine when you can wonder if there’s a Marcel-like object in your house waiting to start a conversation.