Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
Jenny Slate's cute viral hit is even more adorable — and thoughtful, intelligent and meta — in movie form.
January 05, 2023
Every couple has in-jokes, a valuable currency in all relationships, but only Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp have turned a cute private gag into Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. The Parks and Recreation actor and the Fraud director are no longer together romantically, marrying and divorcing in the 13 years since they first gave the world the cutest talking shell anyone could've imagined; however, they've now reteamed professionally for an adorable film based on their 2010, 2011 and 2014 shorts. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On also gave rise to two best-selling children's picture books, unsurprisingly, following a familiar internet-stardom path from online sensation to print and now the big screen. Neither Slate and Fleischer-Camp's faded love nor their joint project's history are ignored by their footwear-sporting seashell's cinematic debut, either; in fact, acknowledging both, whether subtly or overtly, is one of the things that makes this sweet, endearing, happily silly, often hilarious and deeply insightful movie such an all-round gem.
That inside jest? A voice put on by Slate, which became the one-inch-high anthropomorphic Marcel's charming vocals. In Marcel the Shell with Shoes On's initial mockumentary clips, the tiny critter chats to an unseen filmmaker chronicling his life, with earnestness dripping from every word. ("My name is Marcel and I'm partially a shell, as you can see on my body, but I also have shoes and a face. So I like that about myself, and I like myself and I have a lot of other great qualities as well," he advises in his self-introduction.) The same approach, tone and voice sits at the heart of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On's feature-length leap, of course, but so does a touching meditation upon loss, change and valuing what's truly important. Fleischer-Camp plays the movie's documentarian, mostly off-camera, who meets Marcel and his grandmother (voiced by Isabella Rossellini, Julia) after moving into an Airbnb following a relationship breakup — and, yes, their work together becomes a viral phenomenon.
With Fleischer-Camp directing IRL, plus co-penning the warmhearted script with Slate and Nick Paley (who has helmed episodes of Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer), Marcel the Shell with Shoes On spends its opening third initiating viewers into its namesake's world. Clever sight gags abound — inventive uses of everyday objects, too, with honey helping Marcel walk on walls, sneakers (not Marcel's) forming part of ziplines and a tennis ball repurposed as a mollusk-appropriate car. As rendered with a combination of stop-motion animation and live-action, the film's central setting is a delight of details, and each item that's essential to Marcel and Nanna Connie's lives says plenty about them. Theirs is a modest but resourceful and curious existence, and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On's production design screams its love for that combination even when no one is speaking.
Here, the movie's main figure plays tour guide, as he did in the shorts, outlining how everything operates. Dean records and asks questions, paying Marcel more attention than any of the abode's previous guests ever have. But melancholy underscores the shell's every response, with Marcel and the ageing Connie missing the rest of their family thanks to their home's owners' (Undone's Rosa Salazar and Halloween Kills' Thomas Mann) own split (aka the reason the house is an Airbnb to begin with, bringing Dean to their door). From there, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On sends its characters, human and talking, walking, kicks-adorned shells alike, on a quest to reunite Marcel and Connie with their lost relatives. That's the narrative arc, but Fleischer-Camp, Slate and Paley also keenly understand the need to accept the ebbs and flows that simply living brings everyone's way, even as their film scurries in eager search of a happy ending.
The delights are in the details everywhere that Marcel the Shell with Shoes On looks, including in its slicker but still low-key visuals. A handcrafted appearance, from Marcel's single googly eye through to cinematographers Eric Adkins (SpongeBob SquarePants) and Bianca Cline's (Belly of the Beast) keen use of perspective, couldn't be more crucial to the movie's cosy allure — and those careful and caring images do feel lived-in. This is a movie about coping with seismic shifts to one's comfortable status quo, too, so the snug, homely sheen assists in communicating why Marcel isn't so fond of change. He wants to see his family again. He's interested in the world around him. He's set in his busy daily routine. And he's worried about the ailing Nanna Connie, who tends to her window garden, adores the US version of 60 Minutes and its veteran host Lesley Stahl, and has an accent explained by being from the distant location that is the garage. Marcel really just wants what we all yearn for, though: happiness we've known and lost.
Ensuring that family-friendly animation is genuinely adult-friendly is a rarer skill than it might seem; just because all-ages-courting flicks reach screens with frequency, that doesn't mean they all keep both older and younger viewers equally engaged. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On has the kid-centric cuteness down pat inherently — just look at Marcel, as millions have since those first shorts — but its mature and layered storyline is just as much of a wonder for everyone else. While the picture's midsection savvily and amusingly skewers internet attention, aka the type that's followed this seashell for more than a decade (and Slate's career as well), getting the room to create something this thoughtful out of a viral hit is one of its spoils in this specific instance. Slate and Fleischer-Camp have channelled their inner Marcel, clearly, making the most of the situation and its ups and downs — and making a soul-refreshing marvel.
Don't be suspicious: an online-famous critter that sprang from an in-joke about a funny voice has indeed sparked this sincere and soothing — and impressively, intelligently meta — film. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On's achievements are many, including offering a far cheerier alternative to Barbarian when it comes to folks unexpectedly sharing the same Airbnb, but its biggest might be its deceptive simplicity. Yes, it's a movie about a chattering shell dressed in footwear. Yes, it knows what worked in Marcel's early screen appearances and doesn't shy away from it. Fleshing all of that out to feature length proves just like putting your ear up to a seashell here: you can see and hear the world in this delicate, tender and disarmingly beautiful film. You can also listen to the iconic and inimitable Rossellini serve up a rich, smooth and enchanting vocal effort with an impeccable sense of comic timing, which is exactly the kind of treat that Marcel would want everyone to revel in.
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