Sometimes I’m still befuddled that we can get a film made. It’s not an easy concept to pitch when sitting before studio heads, insisting that the sweetness of a one-inch tall shell can overcome the audience’s hesitation to connect with what is usually an inanimate object. Dean Fleischer Camp’s first major directorial effort uses the inherent cuteness of its star to draw in viewers, smuggling a story of melancholy and the isolation that comes from separation under the guise of more treacly fare.
Marcel came to popularity in 2010 with a series of stop-motion animated web videos. There were three to start with, but their popularity won Best Animated Short at the AFI Fest that year and created a genuine internet sensation. Fleischer Camp’s then partner, Bob’s Burgers talent Jenny Slate, voiced the adorable character and gave life to the arts-and-crafts creation. The shorts were each accompanied by a short children’s book, providing an expansion on the world of little Marcel. The couple always felt they could do more with the idea, and in 2021 a feature-length film starring the shell premiered at Telluride.
What a beautiful little film it is.
Marcel lives alone with his grandmother, Nana Connie (Isabelle Rossellini), at an Air BnB formerly owned by a married couple. The couple separated, with one partner storming out after dumping his sock drawer into a suitcase. Unfortunately, the sock drawer was considered a safe space by the shell community within the house during fights the couple would have. Marcel and his grandmother live in isolation after this incident, happy but hiding a deep depression. Others have come and gone from the Air BnB, but Marcel connects with Dean when he moves in. Dean is recovering from a split all his own (a plot very much fueled by Fleischer Camp and Slate attempting to move on from their own marriage), leaving little Marcel as someone to occupy his time. They start a documentary together, eventually deciding to help the little guy find his family.
The concept of a kid-friendly A24 movie lies on the surface, but underneath there is a vast ocean of contemplative anxiety and beauty that is hard to quantify. The film mainly consists of one man, almost always behind a camera, interacting with stop-motion shells as they do menial tasks and talk about life. Nana Connie is steadfast and loving, a lovely contrast to the nervously curious Marcel. One is a star setting while the other has just begun to creep up over the horizon, allowing brief and meta glances at the idea of celebrity in the face of purpose. The two want a community, but whether or not they’ll actually be helped towards one is a different story.
Marcel’s often beautiful view of life can be easily scarred by the disappointment we all feel in the social media age. “Thoughts and prayers” can make oneself feel good at the moment, but the way it devastates a young mollusk longing for a family can be a good reflection of how we project our own sensibilities on those in the spotlight to negative effect. Marcel likewise becomes scared of the outside world, as the constant stalking and Tik Tok dancers congregating outside of his home becomes detrimental to the health of his Nana. Change and exposure are terrifying things, with ramifications outside of just one’s physical being, and these things come crashing down quickly.
Which leaves us with…what, exactly? A hermit crab shell with Polly Pocket shoes glued on seems like a concept that couldn’t carry a film, but it’s the quiet way in which the young individual sees the world that provides the true beauty of this mockumentary. Marcel lives in a sort of awe, enamored with things as massive as the mantle from which he surveys the house to the sound of a breeze blowing through his shell. His understanding of the wider world, at least outside of his home, begins to grow and so does his connection with the world as a whole. He brings Dean out of his shell (see what I did there), charms the entire world with his pleas for aid in finding his community, and makes small quips that I’m sure are just babbling to him and ruinous to the audience.
Thank goodness we got Disasterpiece back on a film score. Their work on It Follows was a triumph in 2014, but they’ve been working on their own pieces ever since. Drawing the group out to support the shell with shoes on, Fleischer Camp seems to have coaxed some delicate and galactic music out of the team. Serving as a mixture of a Disney movie score, an homage to Goldsmith’s The Planet of the Apes music, and a dash of Reznor and Ross’s Gone Girl work, it’s just a triumphantly sweet series of tracks that live in lo-fi while helping to tell a heightened story. It’s a blast to listen to, something I think shows the work of a good film composer, and it complements its subject matter perfectly. Jazzy, transcendental, and earthy, it works with multiple styles to clank and career off of every surface (not unlike the tennis ball Marcel travels in).
Marcel is a sweet little shell, and his movie is one of the most moving things of 2022. Eclectic, sweet, and wholly original, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On can be viewed by the whole family. I wouldn’t recommend it, leastways not if you would like to keep your kids from seeing your quiet devastation, but it’s a beautiful debut film that simply must be seen.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is playing in select theatres.