Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is the most human movie of the year. Perhaps that is an odd declarative to make, considering Marcel is indeed a shell. However, the new film from director Dean Fleischer-Camp and studio A24 hits home for audiences, both human and otherwise identified. Based on the 2010 short of the same name that follows a big-hearted, little shell named Marcel as he navigates through life in a human-sized world.
Marcel is voiced by Jenny Slate, the voice actress for the original YouTube shorts. Slate and Fleischer-Camp created the character together, sharing the credit when the shorts became a viral sensation. Since then, two more shorts and a series of children’s books were released.
To show Marcel’s journey on the big screen, the creative team chose a mockumentary style, with Marcel speaking directly to the camera. Director Fleischer-Camp is both the voice behind the camera and the character of Dean, who chooses to create a documentary of Marcel’s life.
Marcel is eager to speak to him. For years, Marcel has largely lived alone with his Grandmother, named Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini). Marcel shows Dean all the special ways both he and Connie have maneuvered the giant home in order to survive, such as using a tennis ball for transportation. As the film progresses, Marcel reveals the house used to be home to many shells like he and Nana Connie, as well as a married couple. The married couple never knew about the shells living in their home and accidentally separate Marcel from the rest of his shell community when they split up. This lays the framework for Marcel’s hero journey.
In an attempt to find his friends and family, Dean helps Marcel to go viral, but this backfires. Dean continues to help Marcel in searching for his community, even enlisting the help of Lesley Stahl, host of 60 minutes, whom Marcel and Connie idolize, dubbing her “fearless.”
The movie is, needless to say, heartwarming and inspiring. However, what makes this film truly great is how every person can resonate with Marcel’s journey. Being a tiny shell, Marcel has thought of creative ways to navigate his home. At one point he tells Dean that “it’s a common fact that you need at least twenty shells to be a community,” emphasizing how hard both he and Nana Connie have to work to survive.
Most people can relate to this. While we might not have the need to travel by tennis ball, most of us have felt a “fish out of water” scenario before. Whether this means starting life in a new city or starting a new school or job, Marcel’s inspiring journey isn’t far from our own.
Marcel is also extremely protective over Nana Connie. We have all seen loved ones age and gradually decline. Marcel’s determination to make Nana Connie happy isn’t unlike many special relationships between grandchildren and grandparents.
At its heart, this is a film about community. What the film does so well is show that while one can survive on their own, perhaps a more fulfilling life is shared with others. Marcel details how different members of his community used to help in day to day tasks. Many of us don’t realize how much we rely on other people until we are forced to do their jobs.
The best part of the film is arguably the relationships, like the one between Marcel and Dean. They begin as strangers: different creatures who must live together for awhile. Despite their obvious differences, Marcel learns to trust and bond with Dean and incorporate him into the growing community. Dean, while rarely seen, begins to help Marcel not just for the “documentary,” but because he begins to care. The relationships this film builds are what make it such a heartwarming story, the perfect remedy to the current sociopolitical climate in the real world.
Outside of the heroic journey, the film is spectacular on its technical merit as well. The film uses a mixture of stop-motion animation and real world settings to tell his story. The odd combination is beautiful and pays homage to the original shorts. The score Disasterpeace is another marvelous addition, helping to create an atmosphere of wonder and epic feeling.
The stop motion animation style is delightful. The realistic movements and precise tempo the characters move is a real testament to the creative team. The film can easily be enjoyed by any human (or shell.) Marcel is quite funny, enough to make kids laugh while also being a beacon of hope for any adults who have felt separated from their own community. There’s a delicate touch to each person involved in this film. It’s as though they all knew they had something special, something the world needed.
Slate’s Marcel voice is distinct: innocent yet mature, we believe everything the little shell has to say. Marcel is resilient, hopeful, charismatic and yes, human. Slate is incandescent as she brings Marcel to life. His journey in this film encompasses everything that it means to live life. Isabella Rossellini is just as delightful as Nana Connie, bringing warmth and gravitas to her character. Behind the camera, Dean Fleischer-Camp masterfully maneuvers Marcel’s journey with care and precision. That is why Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is not only one of the most human movies of the year, it is also one of the best.