When director Dean Fleischer-Camp and actress/writer Jenny Slate initially constructed the beloved short film Marcel the Shell with Shoes On over a decade ago they had no idea that COVID-19 would ravish the world. The lovable Marcel may not have been created with a global pandemic in mind, but he is the perfect vessel for use to work through the collective emotional trauma we have built up over the past two years.
Finally getting the feature film treatment after three short films, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a delightful and cathartic examination on loneliness, community and dealing with unexpected change. This may sound like heavy topics for a family friendly film, but Fleischer-Camp coats it all with a sweetness that makes it easy to digest. Frankly, it is hard not to succumb to Marcel’s (Slate) charms.
At one-inch-tall, Marcel and his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini) have had to learn to survive on their own after a mysterious event separated them from their family. Living in an Airbnb with their pet lint Alan, they garden, travel around in tennis balls and other inventive contraptions, and watch their favourite show 60 Minutes. Their solitary life if forever changed when they are discovered by new tenant Dean (Fleischer-Camp), a filmmaker who strikes up a friendship with Marcel. Fascinated by the overly inquisitive shell’s daily routine, Dean begins filming a documentary on how Marcel navigates the world of the house and learns how he ended up in his current predicament.
Uploading some of the footage online, both Marcel and Dean are shocked by how fast the shell becomes a viral sensation. With people sharing their love for the shell online, by imitating his high-pitched whispery voice and tattooing his image on body parts, fame is both a gift and a curse for Marcel. On one hand his sense of privacy disappears, as fans start taking selfies outside his home; however, the sudden attention opens a once seemingly locked door to investigate the potential whereabouts of his missing family.
Presented as a faux-documentary, one that mixes stop-motion animation, CGI and live-action together, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is one of those cinematic gems that is equally fascinating on a technical and narrative level. While one is often wondering how they pulled off certain scenes, the subtlety of the blending of styles never overshadows the central character’s journey.
Marcel’s stature may be small, but he packs a large emotional punch. As Marcel and Dean get to know each other better, Fleischer-Camp’s film skillfully ask audiences to reflect on the various bonds in their own life. Marcel not only grieves for his immediate family, but the causal friendships, take his former neighbour’s who did not speak English for example, that made his community so enriching.
One can easily identify with the sense of loss and isolation that Marcel is working through. We all have moments of loneliness, grief, and trauma that we must work through. For Marcel the process of healing also means taking a leap of faith. You cannot pull yourself out of the quicksand of sadness if one is not willing to reach for a branch.
Endlessly charming and touching, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a celebration of the connections that make our lives memorable. If the world shutting down for two years has taught us one thing, it is that community and the bonds we make, even the smallest ones, are important.