Marcel The Shell With Shoes On

Marcel The Shell With Shoes On (2021)

Marcel The Shell With Shoes On first published by, 17 Jun 2023

In the past, whenever couple Mark (Thomas Mann) and Larissa (Rose Salazar) got into a shouting match, the shells and other miniature life forms with which they unwittingly shared their home would flee to the sock drawer for cover. Which is to say that this community of tiny folk – a bit like The Borrowers only closer in appearance to shelf ornaments than to diminutive humans – abhor arguments and strife of any kind. Accordingly, one of several minor miracles about Dean Fleischer Camp’s Marcel The Shell With Shoes On is that, for the duration of a narrative that runs, unlike Camp’s three celebrated YouTube shorts (2010, 2011, 2014) to which this serves as both prequel and sequel, at full feature length, there is zero conflict to be found here. This is a hangout film, rooted in inventive stunts and conversation.

In a way, the catastrophe has already happened. For despite its leafy suburban setting, this is a post-apocalyptic film, after a sudden, dramatic event has led to the disappearance not only of Mark and Larissa, but of Marcel’s extended network of cohabiting creatures. Accidentally abandoned by their family, now Marcel (brilliantly voiced by Jenny Slate with a combination of child-like wonder, whimsy and low-level snark) and his elderly, increasingly doddery grandma Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini, perfectly issuing wisdoms and poetry) have had to devise ingenious means to harvest food from the garden and to have a good life when, as Marcel points out at the start, “It’s pretty much common knowledge that it takes at least 20 shells to have a community.”

There is a roommate in this house. For some time ago filmmaker Dean (Camp playing a version of himself) moved in, and although we never see his improbable meet-cute with Marcel (whose kind normally hides from humans), Marcel The Shell With Shoes On is a kind of bromance, mediated through the documentary that Dean, at a loose end, starts filming about Marcel’s small world and wide-eyed philosophy. Dean is a rather recessive character, hiding behind his lens, camera-shy himself and heard much more than he is ever seen – but it becomes clear early on that this “one-inch tall shell” and his human friend are bonded in a shared sense of loss (only amplified by our knowledge that Camp and Slater were themselves a married couple, divorced in 2016). For much as Marcel tries to cope with being separated from his people while also having to face up to the approaching departure (of a different kind) by his declining, demented grandmother, Dean has temporarily moved into this AirBnB because his own marriage has come to an unhappy end and his life is on hold – and so these two housemates hang out to stave off their loneliness and quiet sorrow. 

That is the essence of this film’s power. For while it draws us in with its focus on Marcel’s irresistible cuteness and sunny outlook, it is the darker feelings that Marcel shares with Dean – of isolation and grief, of denial and desperation – which ring true, grounding this overtly fictive figure, with his single googly eye and ridiculous pink-shoed feet, in a believable and relatable reality. “I don’t want to lose everything in the hope of something that’s already gone,” Marcel will tell Connie in a moment of heightened melancholy. Yet as this odd couple – live-action human and stop-motion shell – slowly recover together and discover again their courage to reconnect with the world and society beyond, the screenplay from Camp, Slate and Nick Paley brings a credible emotional intelligence to the otherwise absurd proceedings, allowing us, alongside its two principal characters, to process big questions about individuality and community, ephemerality and mortality. 

Much as Marcel becomes, both inside and outside the movie, an internet sensation whose image is adored, multiplied and meme-fied by others, and ends up himself appearing on his favourite television show (and later watching his own broadcast appearance), viewers too will recognise themselves and their experiences in the strange adventures unfolding onscreen. There may be sadness along the way, but discovering how easy it is to empathise with Marcel The Shell With Shoes On is both a surprise, and a genuine joy. 

Strap: Dean Fleischer Camp’s feature length outing for the internet sensation is a whimsical yet wise joy, tinged with melancholy 

Anton Bitel