According to general wisdom, it takes 20 beings to form a real community. When Dean Fleischer-Camp’s charming “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” feature-length film opens, the anthropomorphic seashell (voiced by Jenny Slate) has long been without such a population, instead whiling his days away alongside his sassy grandmother and a rotating cast of mostly disinterested AirBNB guests. Like the trio of early short films Fleischer-Camp and Slate crafted around the stop-motion shell in the early aughts (plus a pair of best-selling storybooks), “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” adopts a breezy mockumentary style to tell the tale of the world’s most charming shell.
This time, however, the duo (plus newbie partner Nick Paley, who wrote it alongside Fleischer-Camp and Slate) dig deeper into Marcel’s seemingly everyday life to unearth the usual tender feelings (he’s a tween shell! with shoes! he’s adorable!), plus a slew of insights that speak to far deeper emotions and ideas. In a time beset with films consumed by questions of connection, community, and change, “Marcel the Shell” seamlessly marries big ideas with charm and humor (and inventive stop-motion work to boot). In short, it’s the cutest film about familial grief you’ll see all year, perhaps ever.
Expanding upon the mythos of Marcel — and no, a deep knowledge of the previous shorts and books is not necessary to appreciate this surprise feature, but it can’t hurt — Fleischer-Camp and Slate first focus on the young shell’s dazzling personality before plunging into a more complex story of a family torn apart. Set mostly in Marcel’s house, which used to be inhabited by the shell’s sprawling community and a young couple (Thomas Mann and Rosa Salazar), the so-called “computer hotel” (as the shells term it) is now serving as Dean’s (Fleischer-Camp) temporary home.
It’s clear that the previous occupants went through a pretty brutal breakup, complete with Mann’s Mark accidentally making off with the majority of Marcel’s family and friends, and Dean is limping his way through his own heartbreak. (Pause to mention that Fleischer-Camp and Slate first invented Marcel when they were married and the pair divorced in 2016, all of which adds a real pop to character Dean’s admissions that his breakup was mutual and affectionate; clearly, these two are still able to create wonder together.)
Marcel and his last remaining relative, Nana Connie, have grown inventive over the years, doing the best they can with just the two of them: Marcel has retrofitted everything from standing mixers to tennis balls to help accomplish everyday tasks, while Connie has beefed up her gardening skills (with the help of a few buggy friends, including one seriously inebriated bee) to feed the duo. Voiced by Isabella Rossellini, Nana Connie first appears working in her garden (a window box), sporting a tiny sun hat (an image so darling and so specific that it almost hurts, much like the entire film itself), and only continues to bring real gravitas to the role. Yes, we’re still talking about stop-motion shells here.
Marcel’s trademark childlike innocence is intact — he is, after all, a child, and scenes in which we see his tiny shell compared to Nana Connie’s robust husk frequently remind us of that fact — but he’s had to grow up a lot in the past two years. Still, he has a great sense of what he wants out of his existence: “not just survive, [but] have a good life.” Dean, the first guest to really notice the duo, delights in that, filming the pair as part of a series of winsome short films he puts online to great acclaim (one of many blurring lines between fact and fiction present in the film). Marcel becomes a major hit on the net, though no one seems too bothered by the fact he’s just a shell, his provenance is of little concern to the social media mavens who flip for him.
Eventually, the project evolves into a full-scale documentary, the kind of film that Marcel explains to Connie thusly: “nobody even knows what it is while they’re making it.” Dean doesn’t know, because while he attempts to keep up a veneer of documentarian distance — at one point, a giggling Marcel catches him on camera, and he flips out when he realizes he’s suddenly on the either side of things — the tiny shell only continues to chip away at his reserve. (The film’s script also mostly eschews the usual beats of narrative storytelling, picking up and dropping arcs before settling on a focus.)
As Marcel wrestles with his newfound fame, the film grapples with the functionality of the internet (in press notes for the film, Fleischer-Camp notes that the early viral fame for Marcel was one of the most “moving” experiences of his life, but surely it was also a little scary). Marcel gets hung up on important idea early on: the difference between an “audience” and a “community,” a sage observation about the nature of internet notoriety.
But while Fleischer-Camp and Slate keep the humor rolling — Marcel’s wide-eyed observations are comedic gold — a deep pain simmers under the surface. Shakey fashbacks reveal the full extent of what the shells have endured, complete with an ill-conceived “shelter plan” that ultimately tore the clan apart. As Marcel shuffles through his missing family’s rooms and wonders about his absent neighbors, it’s impossible not to reflect back on the last few months of human existence. The world has known so much loss in 2020 and 2021, and while the grief of Marcel and Nana Connie would always be pronounced — Slate and Fleischer-Camp bring such texture and care to them — these days, it feels even more rich. Yes, again, we’re still talking about a movie about stop-motion shells. Soon, you will be, too.
“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.